Rail companies push for newer oil tank cars to reduce accidents

 Oil containers sit at a train depot on July 26, 2013 outside Williston, North Dakota. 

Another train carrying crude oil derailed and spilled last week, this time in western Pennsylvania.

Train wrecks are a nightmare for railroad companies. Not only do they put tracks out of service during the cleanup, but it's also a PR disaster, especially when wrecks involve environmental catastrophes. One way to prevent hazardous spills is to use newer tank cars, ones that were built to safety standards created in 2011.

"With the new designed tank cars there's three major changes," says railroad engineering consultant Tom Johnson.

  1. New tank cars feature stronger Manway Covers, the part of the train where the oil is poured in from the top, to keep oil sealed inside in the event of a crash.
  2. Updated cars also have thicker steel and stronger welds that make the tanks less susceptible to punctures.
  3. "Thirdly there's a heat shield, one that covers the front of the car and one that covers the back of the car," says consultant Tom Johnson. These prevent fires from spreading from car to car.

The newer cars are more expensive and regulators don't mandate their use. So Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railway have both announced that they will be charging extra for customers who ship oil in older cars.

Canadian National said in a statement that they have restructured their rates to create an economic incentive for customers to make the switch.

Even if the incentives work, companies won't be able to get new cars anytime soon.

"You are looking at two to three years to get new cars built because there's just that much of a backlog," says Gary Hunter, president of Railroad Industries Inc.

Only 15 percent of the roughly 92,000 tank cars that transport flammable liquids meet the new safety standards. With oil production booming in the U.S. and Canada, one possible result of the surcharge is that companies could look for other ways to transport crude.

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.

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