Transportation Rail Federal agencies

NTSB roundtable focuses on rail tank car safety

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Robert L. Sumwalt

Photo: National Transportation Safety Board

Washington – The rail industry has no reason not to exceed a government-imposed deadline for key safety improvements to rail tank cars that transport flammable liquids, Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said July 13 during an NTSB roundtable discussion.

The roundtable comprised nearly two dozen organizations, including federal agencies, industry associations, and rail industry manufacturers and suppliers. Among the topics discussed were retrofitting or phasing out older rail tank cars, implementing newer DOT-117 models, and factors influencing tank car decisions.

Sumwalt said a goal of the roundtable was to create a “sense of urgency” to complete tank car replacement or retrofitting as soon as possible.

A final rule unveiled in 2015 requires railroads to retrofit tank cars between 2018 and 2025, depending on the model. Thousands of older DOT-111 general purpose cars were pressed into service to haul ethanol and crude oil across the United States and Canada amid rising demand.

On June 19, 2009, in Cherry Valley, IL, 19 rail cars carrying ethanol derailed and 13 of them breached. A passenger in a vehicle waiting at the rail crossing died as a result of a fire following the derailment, according to a report from NTSB. The report found that a DOT-111 tank car can almost always be expected to breach in the event of incidents resulting in car-to-car impacts or pileups.

“Transporting flammable liquids by rail is a problem that will not get any better until general purpose tank cars are replaced or retrofitted to the new standards,” Sumwalt said. “The government-mandated deadlines are just that – deadlines. But that doesn’t mean we have to wait until those deadlines to complete these vital safety enhancements.”

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