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Industry fights safety retrofit of older rail cars

Caption
(AP)
This July 7 file photo shows firefighters watering railway cars the day after a train derailed causing explosions of cars carrying crude oil in Lac Megantic, Quebec, Canada. The Obama administration has delayed by nearly a year a plan to boost safety standards for the type of rail car involved in the fiery explosion that killed at least 47 people in Canada this month.

WASHINGTON (AP) – The oil industry and U.S railroads are resisting the Obama administration’s attempt to boost safety standards for the type of rail car involved in a fiery, fatal explosion in Canada, citing costs and technical challenges.

Industry groups say it is impractical to retrofit tens of thousands of existing tank cars used to haul oil, even as they have adopted voluntary standards to ensure that cars ordered after October 2011 meet tough requirements recommended by federal transportation experts following a deadly ethanol train derailment and explosion in Illinois two years earlier.

A proposed rule to beef up rail-car safety was initially scheduled to be put in place last October, but it has been delayed until late September at the earliest. Officials blamed the delay on the time it has taken to seek and review petitions from industry groups and the public. A final rule isn’t expected until next year.

The agency is considering a plan intended to fix a dangerous design flaw in a rail car commonly used to haul oil and other hazardous liquids from coast to coast. The soda-can shaped car, known as the DOT-111, has come under scrutiny from safety experts because of its tendency to split open during derailments and other major accidents.

Defects in the car’s structure were noted as far back as 1991.

The rail industry estimates that retrofitting older cars would cost at least $1 billion, not including lost-service time for cars removed from the fleet for repairs.

“If safer and better DOT-111s can be had, then it makes good sense to ensure that the design and standards that these cars are built to, must be tougher than the federal standards that exist today,” said Association of American Railroads spokeswoman Patricia Reilly.

Reilly said the industry has adopted voluntary standards ensuring that all DOT-111s ordered after October 2011 meet tough requirements recommended by the NTSB after the 2009 crash outside Rockford, Ill., which killed a woman and injured 11 others.

But those voluntary standards do not apply to an estimated 40,000 cars built before October 2011 that carry oil, ethanol and other flammable liquids.

The industry’s proposal “ignores the safety risks posed by the current fleet,” the NTSB said in a report on safety recommendations last year. Older tank cars “can almost always be expected to breach in derailments that involve pileups or multiple car-to-car impacts,” the report said.

The NTSB cited the car’s “inadequate design” in the 2009 crash.

The DOT-111 car’s steel shell is too thin to resist puncture in accidents, the NTSB said, and the ends of the car are vulnerable to ruptures. Valves used for unloading and other exposed fittings on the tops of the tankers can also break during rollovers.

The railroads group said about half of the tank cars used to transport oil today meet the higher safety standards.

“Industry is out ahead of regulations,” Delcambre said. “They’re moving forward, which is good.”

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Follow Matthew Daly on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC

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