US board says oil train tank cars need urgent upgrades

By Matthew Brown , AP

BILLINGS, Montana–Tank cars carrying oil or ethanol by rail urgently need to be retrofitted to make them more fire-resistant after a spate of explosive accidents in recent months revealed the shortcomings of industry-backed safety standards, U.S. officials said on Monday.

The National Transportation Safety Board issued a series of recommendations calling for the tank cars to be fitted with protective systems better able to withstand fire than the bare steel construction now widely in use.

Possible alternatives include ceramic ��thermal blankets�� that surround the tank to shield it from intense heat should a nearby car catch fire.

The board also called for better valves that can prevent pressure from building inside tank cars as they heat up from nearby fires. And it said a decade-long retrofit timeline that’s been suggested by the tank car industry was too long to wait.

��The industry needs to make this issue a priority and expedite the safety enhancements,�� said NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart.

The recommendations come as the Department of Transportation considers new rules to bolster tank car safety in response to oil and ethanol train crashes that stirred widespread worry in the U.S. and Canada, where 47 people were killed when an oil train crashed in Quebec two years ago.

If the agency decides it would take too long to retrofit the existing fleet with new protective features, it should consider significant speed restrictions on trains as an interim measure, the NTSB said in its recommendations.

The industry in 2011 voluntarily adopted rules requiring sturdier tank cars for hauling flammable liquids such as oil and ethanol. But cars built to the new standard split open in at least four accidents during the past year.