BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Fuel-hauling tank cars need safety upgrades to keep fires from spreading after train derailments, and the public can't wait another decade for the improvements as the industry suggests, U.S. safety officials said.
The National Transportation Safety Board issued four urgent recommendations Monday after a spate of fiery accidents revealed shortcomings in voluntary industry standards for cars hauling oil, ethanol and other flammable liquids.
The agency said the cars should be replaced or retrofitted with protective systems better able to withstand fire than the bare steel construction now widely in use. That could include ceramic "thermal blankets" that surround the tank and shield it from intense heat should a nearby car catch fire, the NTSB said.
The recommendations come as the Department of Transportation considers new rules to bolster tank car safety. Oil and ethanol train crashes have stirred widespread worry in the U.S. and Canada after dozens of significant derailments, including a runaway oil train that crashed and exploded in downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec, two years ago, killing 47 people.
A rule to bolster tank car standards is under final review by the White House and "will significantly improve the safety of all trains carrying flammable liquids," Transportation spokeswoman Susan Lagana said Tuesday. The agency was preparing additional actions while the rule is pending, she said, without offering further details.
The industry voluntarily adopted rules in 2011 requiring sturdier tank cars for hauling flammable liquids. But cars built to the new standard split open in at least four accidents during the past year, including oil trains that derailed and burned in West Virginia in February and Illinois last month.
Ceramic blankets around the tanks could help stop those fires from spreading between cars, NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart told The Associated Press. They already are used for tank cars transporting liquefied petroleum gas, the agency says.
The board called for relief valves on tank cars to prevent pressure from building inside them as they heat up from nearby fires, which can cause the cars to explode.
"The longer we wait, the more we expose the public to the problems of these cars that aren't especially robust," Hart said.
Government analysts have predicted that trains hauling crude oil or ethanol will derail an average of 10 times a year over the next two decades, causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S.
If the Transportation Department decides it would take too long to upgrade the existing fleet with new protective features, it should consider significant speed restrictions on trains in the interim, the NTSB said in its recommendations.
To get to refineries on the East and West coasts and the Gulf of Mexico, oil trains move through more than 400 counties, including major metropolitan areas such as Philadelphia; Seattle; Chicago; Newark, New Jersey; and dozens of other cities.
The volume of flammable liquids transported by rail rose sharply over the past decade, driven largely by the oil shale boom in North Dakota and Montana and increased ethanol production.
Since 2006, the U.S. and Canada have seen at least 23 oil train accidents and 33 ethanol train accidents involving a fire, derailment or significant amount of fuel spilled, according to federal accident records.
The oil and ethanol tank car fleet is projected to number at least 115,000 cars by the end of 2015.
Many are owned not by railroads but by the oil and ethanol producers that ship their product via rail. That's created friction between the energy and rail industries as each looks to the other to foot the bill for safety improvements.
The Association of American Railroads said it supports aggressive steps to update or replace the tank car fleet.
"Every tank car moving crude oil today should be phased out or built to a higher standard," the group said in a statement.
The Railway Supply Institute, which represents tank car users and manufacturers, said companies already have spent more than $7 billion on voluntary upgrades. Those companies are ready to do more, but it will take time, said group president Tom Simpson.
Railroads hauled 493,126 tank cars of crude oil last year, up from just 9,500 cars in 2008. Each holds about 30,000 gallons of fuel.