Oil tankers: Danger on the rails

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Story highlights

  • When trains carrying flammable liquids derail, consequences can be deadly
  • Newer model tank cars have been involved in recent accidents

Barrington, Illinois (CNN)On the surface, this is a tidy, upscale community in suburban Chicago where the biggest headache is the commute to downtown.

But listen to city officials talk, and they'll tell you that in recent years, Barrington has become one of the nation's epicenters for possible large-scale disaster.
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Why?
    Rail tank cars laden with oil and other flammable cargo.
    Village President Karen Darch says 10% of Barrington's homes are within 300 feet of two main railroad freight lines that see many trains move through town each day. They are rolling time bombs, says Darch.
    "It is a huge danger," she says. "If they breach, if there's a derailment in the heart of my town and there's a breach of tank cars, there can be a plume of flame high into the sky."
    It isn't like it can't happen.
    There have already been multiple tank car accidents that resulted in fires just this year. Earlier this month, a train carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire about 50 miles east of Minot, North Dakota. No one was injured, but local residents were evacuated.
    In February in Mount Carbon, West Virginia, railroad officials conceded there was no way to put out the resulting fire after a derailment. There, a train hauling crude oil in newer-model tanks derailed and exploded, displacing residents and threatening the local water supply. For safety, the railroad officials said, the best thing was to let the fires burn until the oil inside was depleted.
    The same thing occurred in Galena, Illinois, and in the rural village of Gogama, Ontario. Both incidents involved newer model tanks that were traveling at reasonable speeds.
    Following a spate of recent accidents, the National Transportation Safety Board last month made a number of recommendations to improve the safety of rail tank cars that carry flammable liquids. Those recommendations include requiring tank cars to be equipped with strong thermal protection systems and devices that release pressure in fire conditions.
    The Federal Railroad Administration has now ruled new tank cars built after October 1 need to meet tougher, safer standards for carrying flammable material. Railroads will also be required to route trains carrying hazardous material on tracks that face additional inspections and are considered safer for oil tanker traffic. But even newer, supposedly sturdier tank cars now on the rails have been involved in accidents this year.
    In recent years, records show, there have been at least 10 accidents with trains carrying oil, the most destructive in the village of Lac Megantic, Quebec, where 47 people were killed and the town center destroyed. Compounding the problem is that Bakken crude is believed to be more combustible than oil from traditional sources.
    The man who used to run the federal government's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration says the tank cars aren't the only issue. The tracks they run on are a potential problem, too.
    "The focus really needs to swing around to the railroads and say, 'You guys have got to keep these cars on the tracks.' It's that simple," says Brigham McCown.
    The American Association of Railroads counters that rail owners have spent billions of dollars to upgrade tracks and improve inspections. And, says AAR Senior Vice President Patricia Reilly, more money for improvements is planned for the near future.
    All of that is cold comfort to officials in towns like Barrington. Rail traffic increased from about half a dozen freight trains a day in 2009 to the current 20 trains a day, the village president says.
    It's faster to move trains around Chicago than to slow them down and move them through the center of the city, says Darch.
    First responders in Barrington can look at the paper manifests on the sides of tankers detailing which trains are carrying which flammable or hazardous cargo. But it does them little good, Darch says, because without electronic manifests available on cell phones, emergency workers would have to march down the tracks in the face of burning tank cars to see which cars have which cargo inside.
    She says one railroad offered to provide the information electronically but insisted on a confidentiality clause about what was inside the tank cars. The village, she says, refused the offer.
    Under the new rules, railroads will need to better communicate with local and state authorities when hazardous material is being routed through their jurisdictions.