But five times in 20 years, the NTSB has warned the DOT-111's design is unsafe.


PAINESVILLE -- The rumble of train traffic is rising across the United States and here in Ohio. One reason: crude oil production.

In 2009, freight trains carried approximately 31 carloads of crude a day. Today, that number has jumped to over 1,400.

This is great news for the rail industry and for our economy. But safety advocates are sounding a warning over the type of rail car commonly used to transport products like crude oil and ethanol. They may have some serious safety flaws.

Painesville's Heisley Park neighborhood is a stone's throw from tracks where freight trains roll by daily.

"It's our neighborhood. It's where we are comfortable," says Teresa Keating.

Six years ago Keating had just put one of her four children on the school bus when an eastbound CSX train derailed not far from her home.

The train carried ethanol and other hazardous materials. Six of the tanker cars ruptured, spilling their contents and catching fire

Related: Safety forces in dark about train cargo

Keating and her family were given only minutes to get out.

"Concern was for my son. We have a special needs son, and his supplies, his food, diapers. You can't just run to the store and grab his supplies," Keating recalls.

They were among 1,400 people evacuated that day. But the Keatings and their neighbors were among the last of the evacuees allowed to return that week.

Today, Teresa's biggest fears about the trains rumbling by her home center on the huge black tank cars and what they carry. She hopes they don't derail again.

The DOT-111 has been called the "workhorse" of the American tanker car fleet. These non-pressure tanks make up roughly 69 percent of U.S. tank cars according to National Transportation Safety Board. They have been in use for decades and are recognizable for their soda can shape.

But five times in 20 years, the NTSB has warned the DOT-111's design is unsafe.

Specifically, in collisions and derailments their steel shell is vulnerable to puncture, fittings on top can rupture on impact, and the tanker's ends are prone to damage. The NTSB included chilling photos in the 2012 report.

2012 NTSB report on DOT-111

But the pictures pale in comparison to the images from Lac-Megantic. This July, a runaway freight train loaded with crude oil derailed in the Quebec province. Forty-seven people died in the accident, and much of the town, once a popular tourist destination, burned to the ground. DOT-111's carried the oil.

"They kind of remind me of the Ford Pinto," Bob Comer says.

Comer has investigated rail accidents for 25 years for law firms and safety advocates.

He says Northeast Ohio has good reason to worry about the increasing frequency with which DOT-111s pass through our neighborhoods.

"They are running a lot more of these cars, because there is such a huge demand for the crude oil, ethanol and all these products," Comer points out.

He says look no further than recent accidents involving DOT-111s in Ohio, such as the massive blast and chemical spill in Columbus in 2012.

And in 2011, a train derailed in Arcadia, south of Toledo. DOT-111s broke open spilling 786,000 gallons of ethanol.

So what is being done? The NTSB can only issue recommendations, not requirements.

According to the Association of American Railroads, "railroads in general do not own rail tank cars. The vast majority are owned by leasing companies or rail customers to ship products."

The U.S. Department of Transportation and Transport Canada issue federal regulations.

The Association of American Railroads and the North American Tank Car Committee set industry standards.

In 2011, a rail industry task force did issue new standards requiring DOT-111s adhere to improved standards that include, but are not limited to a thicker, a puncture-resistant shell and extra protective head shields at both ends of the tank car.

American Association of Railroads: Tank Car Fast Facts

These improvements are well-received within the industry. But according to the American Association of Railroads, 240,000 DOT-111s are in service today.

Of those, only 60,000 are the newer models.Teresa Keating and her family have no plans to move farther away from the tracks.

But, while they hope for the best, they worry and wonder what if there is a next time? "Bad things go through your head," Keating says.

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