Fuel-hauling tank cars need retrofits to prevent more explosive train wrecks — and the public can't wait another decade for the improvements as has been suggested by industry, U.S. safety officials said.
The National Transportation Safety Board issued a series of recommendations Monday after a spate of fiery accidents revealed shortcomings in voluntary industry standards for cars hauling oil, ethanol and other flammable liquids.
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The NTSB 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.
Ceramic blankets already are used for tank cars transporting liquefied petroleum gas.
Also recommended were relief valves that can prevent pressure from building inside tank cars as they heat up from nearby fires.
The industry in 2011 voluntarily adopted rules requiring sturdier tank cars for hauling flammable liquids such as oil and ethanol. 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.
"The longer we wait, the more we expose the public to the problems of these cars that aren't especially robust," NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart told The Associated Press.
"What we're seeing is ... once one car is punctured and releases (oil or ethanol), if that product ignites and forms a pool fire, the pool fire causes other remaining cars that aren't punctured to heat up and cause an explosion," Hart 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, where 47 people were killed when a runaway oil train crashed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, two years ago.
Government analysts have predicted 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 retrofit the existing fleet with new protective features, it should consider significant speed restrictions on trains as an interim measure, the NTSB said in its recommendations.
The volume of flammable liquids transported by rail has risen dramatically over the past decade, driven largely by the oil shale boom in North Dakota and Montana. 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 reviewed by the AP.
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 in response to Monday's NTSB announcement that it supports aggressive steps to retrofit 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 the group's president, Tom Simpson.
"Our proposal is you go after the older cars first. That's where you get the most risk reduction," Simpson said.
A spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute said the organization supports a "science-based" approach to safety that includes track maintenance and repairs in addition to any tank car upgrades.
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.
To get to refineries on the East and West coasts and the Gulf of Mexico, oil shipments travel through more than 400 counties, including major metropolitan areas such as Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, Newark and dozens of other cities.