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Regulators and the shipping industry need to cooperate on safer railroad tank cars

The recent concern about the safety of railroad tank cars hauling crude oil should be a clarion call for the rail industry and government to work together to come up with a solution.

Just the other day, outgoing National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman criticized the rail industry, which she said is running outdated tanker cars filled with oil through cities like Buffalo.

The Department of Transportation needs to speed up writing new requirements for the tank cars, and should enlist the industry in the effort. Some shippers have already purchased tens of thousands of upgraded tank cars, with features such as end caps, insulating jackets and other safety features that go beyond current U.S. mandates.

The changes were adopted voluntarily in October 2011, and now the question is how those cars will be treated under the forthcoming regulations. In the meantime, the legacy tankers known as DOT-111s remain on the tracks and traveling across the nation.

While those tankers satisfy existing government mandates, they may be completely phased out or subject to retrofits under rules being drafted by the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

That can’t happen soon enough. Hersman warned that communities are not prepared for the nightmare that occurred in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, last July 6, when a train carrying crude oil derailed. Several tanker cars exploded and 47 people died. Half of the town’s downtown area was destroyed.

Consider that two or three such trains travel through Buffalo and Western New York every day. Further consider the near-miss when a train carrying crude oil derailed in Cheektowaga last Dec. 10. The DOT-111 model tanker cars Hersman is so concerned about are the type rail industry sources have said mostly roll through Buffalo. It is also the model used on the train that derailed in Quebec.

DOT-111 tanker cars lack armor and are not pressurized, which makes them much more likely to puncture or explode than newer, more sophisticated models. Upgraded tankers are on the rails, but there is no way to be sure they will meet the new regulations.

Rail industry representatives have said as much in telling federal regulators they need clear government guidance. They can’t be blamed for not wanting to be penalized for making voluntary improvements that fall short of later mandates.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., is on the mark with a proposal that the rail industry speed up the phaseout of the DOT-111 cars in densely populated parts of New York. This much-needed change would buy time while new standards are written and better tanker cars are built.