On Monday, a train hauling 100 tankers of crude oil derailed in West Virginia. The violent crash punctured several of the tankers. Eventually 19 were engulfed in flames. Now, more questions are swirling about whether these tankers are safe enough to carry crude.
Old cars, new crude
Initially, the crash had many pointing to a seemingly , Quebec in 2013, in which crude oil tankers also ignited following a derailment. In the Quebecois crash, many of the tanker cars involved were DOT-111s—a train car not designed to transport flammable crude oil, but that regularly does so on North American rail lines.
In 2009, four years before the Quebecois crash, the DOT-111 had been flagged by U.S. National Transportation Safety Board as inadequate to carry ethanol and crude oil, chiefly because of its inability to prevent a puncture in the event of a crash. But the NTSB's recommendations are not legally binding anywhere in North America. More than 100,000 DOT-111s were transporting crude across American and Canadian rails when the Quebec accident occurred, and still are today.
The CSX Corporation, the railway company that owns Monday's crashed tankers, was quick to point out that the tankers in use in the West Virginia crash were not DOT-111s, but CPC-1232s. But the fact is that a CPC-1232 tanker is just a reinforced, purportedly tougher version of the DOT-111—a redesign put in place after the NTSB's 2009 warning. The biggest difference between the DOT-111 and the CPC-1232 is that the head shields (the puncture-prone ends of the cylindrical tankers) are more heavily protected.
These CPC-1232s are being increasingly used for crude oil transportation, and are planned to eventually phase out the older DOT-111 models. But as the West Virginia accident is shows, the CPC-1232 is also far from disaster-proof.
Why? Although the CPC-1232 boasts sturdier head shields, both it and the DOT-111 suffer from a much more basic problem: they simply aren't thick enough overall. Both train cars have a steel shell that measures 7/16 inch thick. That width falls short of the 9/16 inch steel shell that U.S. regulators say would significantly reduce the likelihood of puncture during a derailment. (Granted, came to this conclusion in January 2014—long after the CPC-1232 redesign.)
A real crude oil tanker
Rather than relying on insufficiently beefed-up old-style tankers—which, when first created, were not designed for crude oil anyway—America needs a crude oil tanker that will not puncture in a crash. It's more important now than ever: Since 2005, thanks to a glut of oil production, the U.S. has seen a 400 percent increase in crude oil transportation. And that number looks to be rising.
Derailments are rare, and railroad techs and transporters do an impressive job of almost always avoiding them. But they will never be completely unavoidable.