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Commonly used rail car has dangerous design flaw

For two decades a type of rail tanker that could tear open in the event of an accident has been used to haul hazardous liquids across the country.

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A freight train is seen after an early morning derailment in Columbus, Ohio on July 11. Part of the freight train carrying ethanol derailed and caught fire, shooting flames skyward into the darkness and prompting the evacuation of a mile-wide area as firefighters and hazardous materials crews monitored the blaze.

Eamon Queeney/The Columbus Dispatch/AP/File

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For two decades, one of the most commonly used types of rail tanker has been allowed to haul hazardous liquids from coast to coast even though transportation officials were aware of a dangerous design flaw that almost guarantees the car will tear open in an accident, potentially spilling cargo that could catch fire, explode or contaminate the environment.

The rail and chemical industries have committed to a safer design for new tankers but are pressing regulators not to require modifications to tens of thousands of existing cars, despite a spike in the number of accidents as more tankers are put into service to accommodate soaring demand for ethanol, the highly flammable corn-based fuel usually transported by rail.

Derailments have triggered chemical spills and massive blasts like one in July in Columbus, Ohio, that blew up with such intensity that one witness said it "looked like the sun exploded." Some communities with busy railways are beginning to regard the tankers as a serious threat to public safety.

"There's a law of averages that gives me great concern," said Jim Arie, fire chief in Barrington, a wealthy Chicago suburb where ethanol tankers snake through a bustling downtown. "Sometimes I don't sleep well at night."

He's not the only one. The town's mayor is trying to build a national coalition to push for safety reforms.

The tanker, known as the DOT-111, is a workhorse of the American rail fleet, with a soda-can shape that makes it one of the most easily recognizable cars on freight routes.

The tanker itself is not suspected of causing derailments, but the National Transportation Safety Board has noted several worrisome problems: Its steel shell is too thin to resist puncture in accidents. The ends are especially vulnerable to tears from couplers that can fly up after ripping off between cars. And unloading valves and other exposed fittings on the tops of tankers can also break during rollovers.

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