Derailments of trains carrying flammable liquid such as crude oil or ethanol are quite rare, but when they do occur, the consequences are dire.

railroad tank cars on a railroad siding
Brian Brown, ThinkStock

With a big surge over the past 10-plus years in the volume of these hazardous materials getting transported by railroad, a new report out of The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine suggests the rail industry can step up its game to improve the safety of an infrastructure that wasn't necessarily built to handle such dangerous cargo.

The report noted pipeline and waterway transportation have a more comprehensive safety system in place, but "railroads have an opportunity to create a more robust safety assurance system."

"Prior to 2005, railroads had little experience carrying ethanol and crude oil in large quantities," the report said. "The surge in domestic production of ethanol resulted in a glut of energy resources in parts of the country that lacked sufficient barge and pipeline takeaway capacity.  Therefore, railroads began to transport hazardous energy liquids in tank cars that had not previously carried these flammable materials in bulk and with shippers that lacked experience transporting them."

In response to derailments, the report said, the industry focused sharply on reducing the severity of future incidents by making tank cars more crashworthy. Those cars will be phased in over time, but cars built to older specifications and less resistant to thermal failures may continue to haul flammable liquids "for several years."

The report suggests this change is not enough; it aims at limiting disaster, rather than eliminating it altogether.

"Preventing the derailment in the first place is imperative," said Paul G. Gaffney II, chairman of the committee that produced the report.

Investigations of past derailments commonly pointed to track wear and defects as causal factors, according to the report. Gaffney said better and more frequent inspections of the tracks — particularly those commonly carrying flammable liquids — are a top priority.

"Questions remain about the technical basis for track inspection standards, which set an allowable failure rate, and whether these allowable rates and repair priorities should be adjusted for routes that continue to be used by tank-car unit trains," the report said.

The report also found a lack of preparedness among many communities frequently traversed by the sensitive rail load.

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