Breakthrough in rail freight safety expected

An ABC7 I-Team Investigation
CHICAGO (WLS) -- A breakthrough is in the works to make railroad oil shipments safer as top U.S. and Canadian transportation officials are expected to announce the plan in Washington on Friday.

Since the I-Team began investigating so-called "bomb trains" a year and a half ago, regulators in the US and Canada have moved faster than usual to ensure that there wouldn't be another catastrophic oil tanker derailment.

Although the Department of Transportation hasn't officially announced it yet, Secretary Anthony Foxx is expected to lay out a new safety plan with his Canadian counterpart.

"There have been many people saying for a long time that those cars should simply not be carrying the kind of hazardous cargo that they are rigid. They are prone to derailment and when they derail they are prone to puncture," said Lloyd Burton, Ph.D., Colorado University-Denver School of Public Affairs.

Derail and puncture they have.

The officially named DOT-111's, on dozens of occasions the past 20 years, have gone off the tracks at high speeds and split open; many times while carrying explosive crude oil.

This 2013 accident in Lac Megantic, Quebec, killed 47 people and there have been more recent fiery accidents across North America.

As the tankers continue rolling through Chicago and the suburbs, local officials have pressed federal authorities to do something.

Friday in Washington, U.S. and Canadian transportation leaders are expected to announce a plan that would quickly phase out the older, riskier rail cars and shore up newer models.

Last month, Foxx hinted that a broad approach was needed.

"There's been an awful lot of focus on the standards but not as much focus on something like speed, emergency response, any number of variables that need to be taken into account...this is an issue that we are very serious about and focused on and very intent on giving the country a very comprehensive solution," Foxx said.

The problem has been known for decades.
The I-Team found a 1991 report by National Transportation Safety investigators who looked at 45 derailments involving DOT-111's and found the tankers were inadequate to safely transport hazardous materials such as crude oil. According to 24-year-old report, the tankers would not have leaked or caught fire if the derailed tank cars had been better equipped.

There has been disagreement between U.S. and Canadian officials about how long to let dangerous older-model tankers remain on the rails with possible phase-in periods ranging from five to 10 years. And speed restrictions for crude-carrying trains have also been an issue.

The ABC 7 I-Team should know more about where the common ground is when the top-level meeting is held Friday in Washington.

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