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Safer rail tankers pledged

(The following article by Ben Goad and David Danelski was posted on the Press-Enterprise website on January 17.)

PENINSULA, Calif. -- On a day when two Kentucky towns coped with dangerous train derailments, Federal Railroad Administration officials on Tuesday promised to strengthen tank cars that carry hazardous materials through neighborhoods across the United States.

Joseph Boardman, the Railroad Administration chief, said an “accelerated” effort will put new design and construction rules in place by January 2008.

As he spoke, firefighters and emergency workers raced to evacuate a community and extinguish flames after a train derailment released volatile chemicals south of Louisville. Residents near Irvine, Ky., were evacuated a day earlier when a tank car caught fire in another derailment.

Railroad officials said they don’t know when the tougher tank cars might be on the rails or when an estimated 23,000 outdated cars will be retired.

Assemblywoman Nell Soto, D-Pomona, said safer cars are needed now.

“There seems to be a lot of dragging of feet,” Soto said in a telephone interview from her office in Sacramento. “I think they have no sense of urgency because the trains go through poor neighborhoods.

“We are putting hundred of thousands of people at risk,” Soto said.

Few parts of the nation are as susceptible to train accidents as Inland Southern California.

The Union Pacific rail yard in Colton is among the busiest in the United States. More than 1.5 million Inland residents live close enough to railroad tracks to be at risk from a serious spill, according to an analysis using geographic-information systems technology from Redlands-based ESRI.

Prototype Specifications

The effort to modernize and strengthen the tank-car fleet was prompted by a series of derailments, some deadly, across the nation in the past five years.

Officials said possible changes include increased thermal protection to reduce the risk of a fire after an accident; stronger metals, including a fiber-reinforced steel that would be more difficult to puncture or crack; a new axle design to prevent tank cars from overturning; and special coupling devices to reduce damage in a collision.

The changes are primarily meant to limit potential destruction from accidents. But the group also will consider the threat of a terrorist attack involving tank cars.

The team creating a prototype car consists of representatives from the Federal Railroad Administration, the Union Pacific Railroad, tank-car manufacturer Union Tank Co. and the Dow Chemical Co.

James Barnes, a Union Pacific spokesman, said the team wants to develop tank cars and hazardous-materials handling procedures that are five to 10 times safer than the current equipment and procedures.

“We’re looking for a breakthrough, Barnes said. A prototype is expected to be unveiled next year.

Trail of Train Troubles

Tuesday’s accident is the latest in a series of derailments, including one in San Bernardino, that highlighted the need for stronger tank cars and brought repeated calls for change from the National Transportation Safety Board over the past five years:

In April 2005, a Union Pacific train carrying hazardous materials and traveling at least 25 mph derailed in west San Bernardino. An estimated 365 people were evacuated but no injuries were reported.

In January 2005, a Norfolk Southern train slammed into a parked train in Graniteville, S.C. Tank cars ruptured and escaping chlorine gas killed nine people.

In June 2004, a Union Pacific train traveling 45 mph collided with another train in Macdona, Texas. It broke open a chlorine tanker and the fumes killed a train crewman and two residents.

In January 2002, a Canadian Pacific train derailed in Minot, N.D. Five tankers carrying anhydrous ammonia ruptured and/or exploded, creating a gas cloud that killed one man and injured more than 1,100.

A 2005 Press-Enterprise investigation into the San Bernardino wreck found that one tank car carrying potentially deadly pressurized chlorine sustained a 1-inch crack, increasing the risk of a dangerous chemical release. The tank car was built in 1977, more than a decade before tougher construction standards were enacted. Residents were kept from their homes for up to a week as a precaution.

As of Tuesday, about 23,000 of 65,000 pressurized tank cars that currently carry the most-hazardous materials predate the stricter standards implemented in 1989, Railroad Administration spokeswoman DeDe Cordell said.

Boardman said the proposal would require railroads to phase out the older cars, but he could not provide an estimate for how long it would take to retire all of the outdated models. Tank cars can last 40 years or more, records show.

Explosion Risks

Gail Beckham, San Bernardino County’s hazardous-materials coordinator, said tank-car strength isn’t the only factor that should be considered. Among the dangers facing the public -- and emergency crews -- is the build-up of pressure inside cars when an accident is accompanied by fire, she said. Vents or pressure-release systems also might need improvements, she added.

Following a 1996 derailment in the Cajon Pass, heated chemicals caused a tank car to explode, heaving part of the car half a mile.

“Obviously, large chunks of flying metal are dangerous,” Beckham said.

Since the 2002 North Dakota derailment, the National Transportation Safety Board has issued six separate recommendations calling on the Railroad Administration to improve the crashworthiness of hazardous-materials tank cars.

“The work of the FRA since then is a step in the right direction, but we prefer to wait until we see a final rule before we react,” NTSB spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said after Tuesday’s announcement.

Two Days, Two Wrecks

Tuesday’s wreck occurred shortly before 9 a.m. in Shepherdsville, Ky. CSX Corp. spokesman Gary Sease said the company’s train -- with four locomotives and 80 cars -- was headed to Louisville from Birmingham, Ala.

The cause of the wreck was unknown. There were no immediate reports of injuries from the wreck but the fumes caused several people to seek treatment at a local hospital, authorities said.

The blaze produced a massive column of black smoke in the mostly rural area. Television footage showed several blazing cars splayed across the rail lines and flaming liquid flowing down ditches from the mangled tank cars.

On Monday, four runaway rail cars struck two parked locomotives in central Kentucky, catching fire and spilling a chemical that prompted a limited evacuation.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

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