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The leader of a railroad safety organization recently testified before the Federal Railroad Administration regarding the necessity of upgrades to a commonly used train tank car. The woman, Karen Darch, told federal regulators that the DOT-111 is the rail equivalent of the Ford Pinto and requires urgent attention to fix dangerous flaws.

Darch and other safety advocates believe changes need to happen so that accidents like the recent derailment in Canada that cost 47 lives can be avoided. Safety experts have known for a number of years that the DOT-111, an incredibly common tanker car used to transport a variety of potentially dangerous substances, including oil, is prone to rupture in the event of a derailment.

In fact, a recent panel of the FRA heard evidence about how regulators have been aware of flaws in the rail car since at least 1991. Despite how commonly known the flaws in the tanker are, little has been done by railroad regulators or railroad carriers to either fix the problem or reduce usage of the tank car. In fact, a representative foe Dow Chemical testified before the panel and revealed the opposition many in the industry have to upgrading the DOT-111s. Cheryl Burke, an executive at Dow, said that retrofitting all existing DOT-111s would be “impractical if not impossible.”

The reason for the resistance on the part of the railroad industry is that DOT-111s are so widely used, representing around 69 percent of the current American rail tank car fleet. Though changes have been made to all DOT-111s that were manufactured after 2011, these changes do nothing to repair the flaws seen in the tens of thousands of older DOT-111s. Safety experts say that the older tank cars should be phased out or should at the very least not be used to haul hazardous substances like oil.

In the wake of the recent deadly train derailment in Quebec, a crash that was exacerbated in large part due to oil-containing DOT-111s rupturing, Canadian regulators are considering a rule change that would speed up the current gradual phase-out of the tank cars. Whether American officials will consider such drastic action remains to be seen.


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