BILLINGS, MONTANA - Tank cars carrying oil or ethanol by rail urgently need to be retrofitted to make them more fire-resistant after a spate of explosive accidents in recent months revealed the shortcomings of industry-backed safety standards, U.S. officials said Monday.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a series of recommendations calling for the tank cars to be fitted with protective systems better able to withstand fire than the bare steel construction now widely in use.
Possible alternatives include ceramic “thermal blankets” that surround the tank to shield it from intense heat should a nearby car catch fire.
The board also called for better valves that can prevent pressure from building inside tank cars as they heat up from nearby fires. And it said a decade-long retrofit timeline that has been suggested by the tank car industry is too long to wait.
“The industry needs to make this issue a priority and expedite the safety enhancements,” said NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart. “Otherwise, we continue to put our communities at risk.”
The recommendations come as the Department of Transportation considers new rules to bolster tank car safety in response to oil and ethanol train crashes that stirred widespread worry in the U.S. and Canada, where 47 people were killed when an oil train crashed in Quebec two years ago.
If the agency decides it will 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 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 in Illinois last month.
A spokesman for the Railway Supply Institute, which represents tank car users and manufacturers, said he could not immediately comment on the NTSB’s 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. Each car holds 30,000 gallons (113,559 liters) 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.
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 AP.
Railroads hauled 493,126 tank cars of crude oil last year, up from just 9,500 cars in 2008 before the boom took off in the Bakken region of North Dakota, Montana and Alberta.