Tougher Tank Cars Too Slow in Coming: NTSB's Sumwalt
"A year after the Mount Carbon [West Virginia] crude oil train fire, residents there know that they narrowly escaped their town becoming the American Lac-Mégantic – an outcome of a fiery derailment that could still happen at any moment," he wrote Feb. 18.
Two important rail safety changes for which the National Transportation Safety Board has been waiting are not yet realized, and a Feb. 18 post on NTSB's Safety Compass blog by board member Robert L. Sumwalt calls for them to be achieved. The two are changing over U.S. railroads' DOT-111 tanker cars that carry crude oil and ethanol so they meet the more stringent DOT-117 standard and implementing positive train control. But DOT has decided to give railroads until 2025 to convert to the DOT-117 standard (which includes tank head shields, thicker shell material for increased puncture resistance, tank jackets and thermal protection systems with reclosing high-capacity pressure relief devices, and stronger protection for bottom outlet valves and top fittings) for those cars and until 2029 for tank carrying other flammable liquids, Sumwalt wrote.
As for positive train control, it was required to be implemented by 2015, but late last year the deadline was extended to 2018. "Some railroads have already advised the FRA they will need an extension to the extension, pushing implementation to late 2020," Sumwalt wrote. "It takes effort and money to make changes to enhance safety, and the NTSB applauds the efforts thus far to implement PTC. But it's time to finish the job."
He began the post by commenting on the Feb. 15, 2015, derailment of 27 tank cars from a 109-car crude oil unit train near Mount Carbon, W.Va. "Crude oil was released from the derailed cars and immediately ignited into a pool of fire. Emergency responders evacuated 1,100 people within a half-mile radius of the accident and allowed the fire to burn itself out," he wrote. "All of the cars involved in the Mount Carbon accident were the enhanced DOT-111 tank cars built to the industry’s CPC-1232 standard, the best available general service tank car at the time of the accident. Yet, the fire created by two punctured tank cars resulted in 13 adjacent tank cars becoming breached when heat exposure weakened their shells, which were not equipped with thermal protection systems."
Sumwalt listed several other derailments in the United States that involved the release of flammable materials and post-accident fires, and he cited the terrible example of the derailment of a train hauling Bakken crude oil in Lac–Mégantic, Quebec, in July 2013, killing 47 people. NTSB would have preferred a more aggressive DOT-117 implementation schedule and awaits concerted efforts by the railroads to upgrade their existing DOT-111 tank cars in flammable liquids service to the new DOT-117 standard or relegate them to carrying less dangerous cargo, he added.
"A year after the Mount Carbon crude oil train fire, residents there know that they narrowly escaped their town becoming the American Lac-Mégantic – an outcome of a fiery derailment that could still happen at any moment," he wrote.