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Environment & Energy

The Deadline Nears to Phase Out Weak Rail Tanker Cars

Tanker car fire following crude oil train derailment
By Sûreté du Québec - https://twitter.com/sureteduquebec/status/353519189769732096/photo/1, CC BY-SA 1.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27152159
Fire following derailment at Lac-Megantic, Quebec

Trains carrying volatile crude oil across Ohio to East Coast refineries and ports in the U.S. and Canada will no longer include a kind of tanker cars that have proven to be easily ruptured in accidents.  

Marathon refinery fire chief, John Gross
Credit Marathon Petroleum Corporatlion
Marathon Petroleum Corporatlion
John Gross, Fire Chief, Marathon Petroleum, Canton, OH

Four years ago, after several incidents of older-style tank cars bursting into flames in derailments, the federal government ordered them phased out by Jan. 1, 2018.  As that date nears, a Transportation Department report shows fewer than 300 of the cars are still in service.

John Gross, fire chief for the Marathon refinery in Canton, says the replacement tankers are more robust.

“The biggest features of these cars is that in the event of a derailment then you have a better chance of maintaining the integrity of the railcar and not having spilled product. So your chances are a lot better of just simply a derailment and not a fire, release or explosion.”

Railroad tank cars during testing
Credit Volpe Center / U.S. Department of Transportation
U.S. Department of Transportation
Tank cars being tested by

The worst fiery derailment was in 2013.  Forty-seven people were killed in the small Quebec town of Lac Mégantic 8 miles from the U.S. border. The train included 72 of the kind of tank cars now in the last stage of being phased out of crude oil hauling.  

They are known as 111s — DOT-111 Tank Cars in the U.S and CVC-111As in Canada.  The cars can typically carry up to 30,000 gallons of crude oil.

In 2013, there were more than 13,000 of them hauling crude on the interconnected rail systems of two countries.

Several variations of the 111s were built over the years, including some called jacketed models that were retrofitted with heavier protective components.

While the original models are the ones that have to be out of crude oil service by Jan. 1st in the U.S., the DOT-111 jacketed units are on a deadline, too. They have to be gone by the end of March. Both types were phased out in Canada in late 2016.

DOT-117 tanker car
Credit U.S. Department of Transportation
U.S. Department of Transportation
DOT-117 rail car design

New, more stringent tanker car construction specifications were approved in 2015 by the Federal Railroad Administration in the U.S. and by Transport Canada. All cars not meeting those design requirements must be out of service by May of 2025.