Oil tank cars like those in Quebec tragedy long seen as flawed

Tue Jul 9, 2013 2:05pm EDT
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By Cezary Podkul and Joshua Schneyer

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The oil-laden train that derailed and exploded in a small Canadian town on Saturday, possibly killing as many as 50 people, included a class of railcar whose vulnerability to leaks and deadly explosions was well known to regulators.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has issued safety guidelines on the widely used, cylindrical tank cars known as DOT-111s, including a recommendation that all tank cars used to carry ethanol and crude oil be reinforced to make them more resistant to punctures if trains derail.

The new guidelines, put forward in March 2012, but which have not yet been adopted by the Department of Transportation agency that oversees the sector, stem from a deadly ethanol train derailment and explosion in Illinois in 2009.

The "inadequate design" of the DOT-111 tank cars made them "subject to damage and catastrophic loss of hazardous materials," the NTSB concluded in its investigation of the 2009 incident, which killed one person and injured several others in Cherry Valley, Illinois.

Saturday's disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, was caused by a runaway oil freight train that leveled the town's center and killed at least 13 people. Another 37 people are still missing.

It is not known if the train's DOT-111 tanker cars were manufactured up to the higher standards. It is also far from clear if more puncture-resistant fittings could have withstood the crush of a train hurtling downhill and leaping the tracks into the center of town.

Ed Balkaloul, an investigator for the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, said the "resistance" of the tanker cars would be part of the investigation.

"These cars are designed to carry all kinds of goods. They could contain corn oil. They are not cars that are protected, like for example the cars that carry propane, which are double hulled or which have shields on the front to provide resistance against shocks in case of impacts," Balkaloul said on Tuesday.   Continued...

Wagons of the train wreck are seen in Lac Megantic, July 9, 2013. REUTERS/Mathieu Belanger