A commonly used type of rail tanker has been allowed to transport hazardous materials across the country despite a the presence of a serious design defect. In fact, the flaw all but guarantees that the rail car will tear apart in the event of an accident spilling cargo that could catch fire, explode or harm innocent residents in local communities. For any engineer, conductor, or transportation worker employed by CSX, Norfolk Southern, Amtrak or Burlington Northern, for example, the danger of these cars is probably personally distressing since they are at risk of suffering serious injuries if this flaw causes an accident.
The tanker, known as the DOT-111, has a soda-can shape and is one of the most commonly seen cars on rail freight routes. Though the rail car is not the cause of derailments, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reports that the steel shell is too thin to resist puncture in accidents. In addition, the ends of the car are especially vulnerable to tears and the unloading valves and other fittings can break off during rollovers.
Unfortunately, these flaws are nothing new. This may come as a shock but these flaws have been noted since as far back as a 1991 safety study. If that wasn't bad enough, the potential for things to go wrong is also not a new discovery. A report found that ethanol tankers have been punctured in at least 40 serious accidents since 2000. The human toll is also very real given that accident reports indicate that since 1996 at least two people have been killed by explosions from railroad accidents and dozens more suffered injuries.
The example of how things can go terribly wrong became a reality in 2009 in Rockford, Illinois (IL). A freight train moved through town carrying more than 2 million gallons of ethanol. The crew was unaware that just ahead, rain had washed away a portion of the track. When the tankers rolled over the damaged track, the engineers could tell the train was going to derail.
The cars began falling from the tracks and flying into the air one by one. A driver parked at a nearby railroad crossing sat helpless as the waves of explosions washed over him and his family. One of several cars parked at the crossing belonged to Jose Tellez whose wife, Zoila, was killed. A witness reported seeing Zoila run from the family van in flames before dying. Jose suffered severe burns while his adult daughter, who was five months pregnant, lost the baby she was carrying at the time.
In addition to the fatality, 11 people were injured in the derailment, making it the nation’s single worst ethanol tanker accident. Nineteen of the 114 cars derailed. Thirteen released ethanol and caught fire. In the final accident report, the NTSB listed the “inadequate design” of the tanker cars as a factor contributing to the severity of the accident.
It is incidents like the one in Illinois that have some communities worried about the potential dangers associated with the continued presence of the flawed tankers on America’s railways. According to recent reports, the railroad industry has so far agreed to change all cars built after October 2011 to a safer design. The improvements will mean thicker shells and shields on the ends of the tanks designed to prevent punctures. While this is certainly goods news, the 30,000 to 45,000 existing tankers that will remain unchanged present real concerns to innocent Americans in the path of the railroads.
The Virginia Railroad Accident Lawyer’s Perspective:
As VA railroad injury lawyers, we have been involved in prior chemical related derailments causing terrible injuries and even death. Our law firm represented victims in the Graniteville, South Carolina Norfolk Southern chlorine derailment and spill that blanketed chlorine gas across a small town in South Carolina. Dangerous chemical spills and/or elements involving tanker cars on the railroad are unfortunately not the thing of fantasies. There have already been a number of serious accidents causing injuries and deaths involving just these types of prior disasters.
As an attorney based in Virginia (VA) who has represented victims of railroad accidents for more than a quarter-century, I have seen firsthand the physical and emotional toll rail employees, including engineers, conductors, and transportation workers, and members of the public have paid when railroad companies, like CSX, Norfolk Southern, or Amtrak, make safety anything other than their top priority.
My colleagues and I maintain an extensive library of attorneys’ answers to frequently asked questions about railroad accidents.
About the Editors: The Shapiro, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC). The attorneys publish articles and edit the Legal Examiner for the Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Northeast North Carolina regions as pro bono service.