Canada and US transportation safety boards call for tougher standards for rail tank cars

TORONTO – Transportation safety agencies in Canada and the United States on Thursday recommended tougher regulations for shipping crude oil by rail in the aftermath of a fatal train derailment in Quebec last year that killed 47 people.

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board, in conjunction with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, recommends that DOT-111 tanker cars used to carry oil and other flammable liquids must meet enhanced protection standards.

The recommendation will cover tens of thousands of older model DOT-111s that are the workhorses of the oil-by-rail industry.

DOT-111s are the most commonly used tank cars prone to rupture. The NTSB has flagged concerns about the safety of DOT-111 cars since the 1990s.

Safety experts in the past have said the soda-can shaped car has a tendency to split open during derailments and other major accidents.

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board member Wendy Tadros told a news conference it is clear that older tank cars should not be used to transport flammable liquids.

“A long phase-out simply isn’t good enough,” she said. “Change must come and it must come now.”

Concerns about the tank cars are higher now because of the fiery train crash in July, 2013, in Lac Megantic, Quebec — near the Maine border — that killed 47 people, and because railroads are hauling significantly more crude oil.

“In the course of our Lac-Mégantic investigation, we found three critical weaknesses in the North American rail system which must be urgently addressed,” said Tadros. “Today we are making three recommendations calling for tougher standards for Class 111 tank cars; route planning and analysis, and emergency response assistance plans.”

In Lac-Mégantic, the boards found that even at lower speeds, the older unprotected Dot-111 tank cars ruptured, releasing crude oil which fuelled the fire.

The safety boards said railways must carefully choose the routes on which oil and other dangerous goods are to be carried, and to make sure train operations over those routes will be safe. They say such routes should be inspected at least twice a year. They also recommend that key train routes for dangerous goods be limited to maximum speeds of 49 miles (80 kilometres) an hour, and that such routes have sensors to detect defective rail-car bearings.

The boards recommend that railways draft more adept emergency response plans for the transportation of all large volumes of liquid petroleum products to reduce the severity and impact of a spill or fire.

“The amount of oil on rails is staggering and much of this crude oil is volatile,” said Tadros.

According to the rail industry, in Canada in 2009, there were only 500 carloads of crude oil shipped by rail; in 2013, there were 160,000 carloads. In the U.S. in 2009, there were 10,800 carloads; and in 2013, there were 400,000 carloads.

“If North American railways are to carry more and more of these flammable liquids through our communities, it must be done safely,” added Tadros. “Change must come and it must come now.”