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WASHINGTON – Rail industry representatives on Tuesday told federal investigators they need clear government guidance on how to boost the safety of tank cars carrying crude oil and ethanol across the United States, lest they be penalized for making voluntary improvements that fall short of later mandates.

Already, while the U.S. Transportation Department slowly writes new requirements for the tankers, tens of thousands of “good faith” tank cars have been voluntarily built with end caps, insulating jackets and other safety features that go beyond current U.S. mandates.

The rail industry adopted the changes voluntarily in October 2011, and some 55,000 of the so-called CPC-1232 tank cars are expected to be in service by the end of next year, but a major question is how they will be treated under the forthcoming regulations.

“We stepped up to the plate in 2011,” said Bill Finn, vice chairman of the Railway Supply Institute’s Committee for Tank Cars, in testimony before the National Transportation Safety Board. “We voluntarily built and will continue to build cars to the CPC-1232 standard. However, even at this time, we still don’t have certainty about whether that will be the final design.”

Finn said the trade group, which represents companies that manufacturer the tank cars and supply components, is “unwilling to go forward” and voluntarily make even more improvements until there is an “open dialogue” with U.S. and Canadian regulators “about what those final regulations will be.”

“We are chasing an even higher standard for safety,” said Gregory Saxton, senior vice president and chief engineer for the Greenbrier Companies, one of four established tank car manufacturers. “We need a good understanding of what will be acceptable, so capital is not afraid to invest in our safe future.”

Tank car designs were drawing scrutiny during the first of two days of an NTSB hearing examining the growing oil and ethanol cargoes rumbling across North American train tracks on their way to ports, refineries and other facilities.

Two or three such trains with large oil cargoes travel through Buffalo and Western New York each day.

Railroads increasingly are filling in where oil pipelines don’t exist to carry crude from North Dakota and Alberta, Canada, to coastal refineries – approximately 400,000 carloads in 2013, up from just 9,500 five years earlier.

The surge in oil-carrying trains has drawn scrutiny among state and local officials, worried about the threat of fiery accidents in their communities. Four New York agencies are set to deliver a report to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo later this month on the state’s preparedness to handle oil spills from trains, ships and barges.

Recent rail accidents – including 16 since 2006 involving tankers loaded with oil and ethanol – show “far too often safety has been compromised,” said NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman.

On Tuesday, much of the focus was on the tankers themselves. The NTSB has already concluded that legacy tankers known as DOT-111s are prone to rupturing in accidents. Under current regulations, their plates must be at least 7/16” thick, but there is no requirement that they have head shields adding an extra barrier to the ends of the tankers, nor insulating jackets that provide additional thermal protection during a fire.

An NTSB investigator said other vulnerabilities include top and bottom fittings that are designed to allow pressure relief, venting and unloading, and manways that allow cleaning and interior inspection of the tank.

In accidents, swing bolts that secure the manways can come loose or fall completely open, and the gaskets that seal the openings are unable to withstand fires.

The legacy DOT-111 tankers satisfy existing government mandates, but they may be completely phased out – or subject to retrofits – under rules being drafted by the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. PHMSA Administrator Cynthia Quarterman has said the agency is actively writing a new rule but the timeline for proposing one is uncertain.

Robert Fronczak, assistant vice president of environment and hazardous materials for the Association of American Railroads, said a rapid retrofit or phaseout program is in order.

“There is no question that taking DOT-111s out of the fleet is going to reduce risk,” Fronczak said. “Those tank cars have a higher conditional probability of release. The question is do you want the cars to go out by attrition [over] 40 or 50 years potentially, or do you try to accelerate that?”