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News of train derailments and accidents that result in massive oil-fueled fires and explosions have become almost routine. While few such railroad instances in the United States have led directly to losses of life, the risks for injuries and extensive damage to property, the environment and drinking water resources cannot be ignored. A tragedy like the firestorm that killed some 50 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, appears frighteningly close to becoming a matter of when rather than if.

Recognizing this, and despite having already required upgrades of tank cars used by U.S. freight railroads, the National Transportation Safety Board on April 3, 2015, issued urgent recommendations for making trains shipping oil, ethanol and other highly flammable liquids more fire-resistant.

The full text of the four essential recommendations appears in this NTSB memo. Boiled down to basics, the agency is calling on BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific and all other commercial railroads operating in the United States to develop and deploy tank cars with ceramic linings and bigger, more-effective pressure release valves. The rail corporations have also been asked to commit to replacing 20 percent of their old stocks of steel-only tank cars each year and to focus on reducing speeds on tracks through populated areas.

In a press release accompanying the recommendations, NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart said, “We can’t wait a decade for safer rail cars. Crude oil rail traffic is increasing exponentially. That is why this issue is on our Most Wanted List of Safety Improvements. The industry needs to make this issue a priority and expedite the safety enhancements; otherwise, we continue to put our communities at risk.”

Freight rail industry groups seem initially receptive to the request to act. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune quoted the Association of American Railroads as officially stating, “Every tank car moving crude oil today should be phased out or built to a higher standard.”

Similarly, the organization representing rail tank car makers and owners, the Railway Supply Institute, informed the newspaper that it intended to help rail companies meet the new federal safety recommendations. At the same time, the institute cited cost concerns and the ongoing program to upgrade even older fleets of tank cars that. in some cases, have been in use since the 1960s.

Having helped railroad workers and other people hurt by train accidents for nearly 30 years, I can only express very cautious optimism that railroads will quickly bring the safest possible oil and ethanol tank cars online. The decadelong resistance to implementing positive train control systems to reduce the possibility of fatal crashes especially gives me pause. Also, even if railroads do meet the guideline of replacing 20 percent of unsafe tank car each year, that will leave thousands of substandard, potentially dangerous cars in use past 2020. Is that risk acceptable?

I do hope, however, that railroads live up to their responsibilities to prevent fires and explosions when tank cars derail.


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