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Many rail cars found substandard

Safety board calls for improvements

WASHINGTON -- More than half the 60,000 railroad tank cars carrying hazardous materials are not built to current industry standards and are more likely to break open after derailing, federal safety investigators said yesterday.

The concern about the older tank cars punctuated a series of National Transportation Safety Board recommendations regarding track inspections and repairs designed to avoid train derailments such as the one in January 2002 near Minot, N.D., that led to a deadly chemical leak.

"This shows how important every link in the accident chain is," board chairwoman Ellen Engleman Conners said. "Every aspect of safety must be addressed."

The board said federal standards were needed for tank cars that carry hazardous materials. In the 2002 derailment, a 122-car Canadian Pacific Railway train was carrying anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer, when it hit a damaged track joint. Five of the cars broke open, spilling 146,700 gallons of ammonia, which had been carried as a liquid but quickly became a gas after coming in contact with air. The chemical formed a vapor cloud. One person died after breathing the fumes and 333 were injured.

"We believe Minot serves as a warning that there is a risk out there to the public," said Tom Lasseigne, a safety board investigator.

Of the almost 60,000 cars now in service, more than 35,000 were built before manufacturers began using stronger steel in 1989; the five that ruptured in the Minot derailment were also older cars.

The board asked the Federal Railroad Administration to study the older cars and rank them by the likelihood of their coming apart in a crash, and to develop standards for new construction. Since the tank cars are expected to last 50 years, investigators said some of the cars most likely to break apart in a derailment will remain in use until 2038.

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