Report: Design flaws in rail tankers involved in Quebec disaster first discovered in 1991

A view of the devastation in the downtown core where burnt tankers sit in Lac Megantic, Quebec July 12, 2013.
Christinne Muschi | Reuters
A view of the devastation in the downtown core where burnt tankers sit in Lac Megantic, Quebec July 12, 2013.
Posted July 29, 2013, at 4:35 p.m.
Last modified July 29, 2013, at 8:31 p.m.

A plan to correct design flaws in the tanker cars coupled to the explosive runaway train that destroyed the center of a Canadian town earlier this month won’t be implemented for a year, officials said Monday.

As the head of the company involved in the disaster said the freight hauler is contemplating filing for bankruptcy protection and further layoffs, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration announced it needs another year to apply recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board that would fix flaws first discovered in 1991 that causes the DOT-111 rail car to crack open during collisions and derailments.

It is impossible to say when or if the rail-car design changes will occur, said agency public affairs specialist Gordon “Joe” Delcambre Jr.

“We are at the very beginning phase of addressing a change in the rules. It takes some time,” Delcambre said Monday. “The thing is, because we change rules that affect the public and the regulated industry, we want to make sure we get enough feedback and information to do a cost savings analysis to see if it is actually cost-worthy to pass the rule.

“Sometimes what may be proposed could be excessively costly to industry. We have to weigh that aspect of rulemaking, [but] we haven’t even got to the point yet of doing a cost analysis,” he added.

The safety board’s recommendation came not in response to the July 6 runaway freight train in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, which killed an estimated 50 people, but from a 2009 accident in which a Canadian National Railway Company freight train traveling 36 mph, derailed at a rail grade crossing in Cherry Valley, Ill., in June 2009.

Thirteen of 19 tank cars carrying denatured fuel ethanol, a flammable liquid, caught fire, killing one nearby motorist, injuring seven others and doing $7.9 million in damage, according to the NTSB report on the accident.

The report lists five accidents or studies involving the DOT-111 tank cars, which are unpressurized, dating back to May 1991 in which investigators found tank head and shell breaches, damaged valves and fittings, or both.

“This represents an overall failure rate of 87 percent and illustrates the continued inability of DOT-111 tank cars to withstand the forces of accidents, even when the train is traveling at 36 mph, as was the case in this accident,” the report on the 2009 incident states.

U.S. Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree, both D-Maine, will be meeting with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration on Wednesday. They are among several federal or state officials meeting with agencies handling rail safety or pressing for safety reviews.

The Maine Department of Transportation is reviewing state rail service per an executive order from Gov. Paul LePage. The Federal Rail Administration has been reviewing tracks at several points over the last week.

Rail industry officials also agreed to implement new safety standards for tank construction, Pingree said.

“The fact remains that there are about 40,000 tank cars out there that are already in service that don’t meet those new standards. It’s important to get those cars upgraded as soon as is practicably possible and it is an issue I expect will come up when we meet with the head of PHMSA this week,” Pingree said in a statement on Monday.

“The federal rulemaking process is complex and can be frustrating, especially when considered in the wake of a tragedy like the one in Quebec,” Michaud said in a statement, adding that he and Pingree were calling upon the administration to issue a new rule improving tanker design.

“The agency needs to get this right so that we can avoid future tragedies,” Michaud said.

U.S. Sen. Angus King said he was disappointed in how long it is taking for the safety changes to be made.

“As PHSMA continues to study the proposed changes, it should also be pursuing other potential corrective safeguard measures that can be implemented immediately to protect against tragedies like the one witnessed at Lac-Megantic,” King said in a statement.

The accident forced the Hermon-based railroad that owns the ill-fated train to lay off 79 of 179 workers as the Lac-Megantic tracks, key to its Maine-to-Montreal service, remain closed. The president of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway parent company Rail World Inc., Ed Burkhardt, said Monday that Canadian investigators have given no timeline for the line’s reopening.

The continued closure could force more layoffs or even, as some industry observers predict, the company’s filing for bankruptcy. A check of the nationwide bankruptcy court database on Monday showed no filings.

Bankruptcy or more layoffs “obviously are possible and we are looking at our alternatives right now,” Burkhardt said Monday. “We have several alternatives that we are studying.

“We are going to make some adjustments based on our current operation,” he added in reference to layoffs. “There could be some minor adjustments.”

MMA customers supply all rail cars used to haul their products, Burkhardt said.

The NTSB report cited poor performance of DOT-111 tank cars in a May 1991 safety study and investigations of a June 30, 1992, derailment in Superior, Wisc.; a Feb. 9, 2003 derailment in Tamaroa, Ill.; and an Oct. 20, 2006, derailment of an ethanol unit train in New Brighton, Pa., the report states.

FRA also investigated the derailment of a train of DOT-111 tank cars loaded with ethanol in Arcadia, Ohio, which released about 786,000 gallons of product on Feb. 6, 2011, the report states.

The incidents moved safety board officials to recommend that tank cars handling denatured fuel ethanol and crude oil have enhanced tank head and shell puncture resistance systems and top fittings protection that exceed the DOT-111 tank cars, the report states.

Costs for upgrading the tank cars were not provided.

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