Derailing Revives Calls To Change How Trains Haul Crude Oil

A fiery oil train crash in North Dakota is once again raising questions about the safety of transporting oil by rail. With an oil drilling boom underway, companies are using rail cars to transport a lot more crude out of North Dakota. Regulators are considering new requirements to make sure tanker cars and the rails they travel on are safe.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board are in the small town of Casselton, North Dakota, trying to learn what caused a fiery train crash. It's the latest in a series of accidents involving trains hauling crude oil. By far the most destruction happened last summer in Canada, where the center of a town in Quebec was destroyed, leaving 47 people dead.

Monday's crash in North Dakota caused no injuries. Still, as NPR's Jeff Brady reports, the mayor of Casselton is calling for changes in how crude oil is transported.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: North Dakota is in the middle of an oil drilling boom and getting all that crude to market has been a problem. Without pipelines, companies have turned to trains. Monday's accident happened one mile west of Casselton. A BNSF Railway train hauling grain derailed. Then another BNSF train pulling oil tanks crashed into it.

Robert Sumwalt is a board member with the National Transportation Safety Board.

ROBERT SUMWALT: The damage to the oil train, both head-in locomotives, were destroyed, 20 cars derailed.

BRADY: Black smoke and a towering fireball rose from the flaming wreckage. It prompted authorities to urge residents nearby to evacuate. People have since returned and the railroad has opened a claims center to compensate residents for expenses associated with the evacuation.

After the deadly oil-train crash in Quebec, the types of tanker cars railroads use came under scrutiny. Critics and many in the industry say the cars need to be made safer. It appears those same types of tankers were involved in the North Dakota accident, according to Sumwalt.

SUMWALT: We have preliminary information that indicates they are DOT-111 cars. But there are different types of DOT-111 cars, so we will want to be confirming that. That's certainly one of the things that we will be looking at.

BRADY: Federal regulators already have tightened some rules for oil shippers. And they're in the process of putting even more stringent requirements in place, especially when it comes to these tank cars.

Patti Reilly, with the Association of American Railroads, says her group asked the government a few months back for new standards.

PATTI REILLY: What it means is all of these tank cars - 92,000 of them - will have to be retrofitted or phased out.

BRADY: The industry put some new requirements in place for tank cars built in the last few years. But Reilly says in light of the Quebec accident, it's clear even tougher standards are needed for existing tank cars hauling oil.

REILLY: It will need a thicker, more puncture-resistant outer-shell jacket around the entire tank car, and thermal protection, There will have to be at either ends of the tank car extra-protective head shields.

BRADY: And a pressure release valve that combined with these other improvements should make moving oil by rail safer.

The NTSB and other federal agencies on the ground now in North Dakota say preventing accidents like this is a primary goal of their current investigation.

The North Dakota accident is just one rail incident the NTSB is working on right now. There was the deadly commuter train accident that happened just after Thanksgiving in New York. And the board is investigating another train accident that happened Monday in Louisiana.

The NTSB's Sumwalt says that means a final report for the North Dakota oil train accident will not be finished quickly.

SUMWALT: We are very, very busy, especially in our rail division. So I'm going to say that I suspect it will be at least 12 months and maybe even longer.

BRADY: Sumwalt says if investigators learn something that could improve safety in the meantime, the NTSB could issue emergency recommendations for the rail industry sooner.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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