WASHINGTON – Lawmakers on Wednesday pressed federal regulators to finalize new design standards for a common railroad tanker car that a safety official said “poses an unacceptable public risk” given the amount of crude oil and other flammable liquids being hauled by trains.

Members of a House subcommittee were unable to extract a precise time frame for when the U.S. Department of Transportation will complete work on new standards for the DOT-111 car, the type involved in last July’s deadly derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

Cynthia Quarterman, director of the DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, said her agency is drafting rules and hopes to release a proposal this year. The National Transportation Safety Board first declared the DOT-111 was too prone to rupture more than 20 years ago.

“We need to get this right, which means we need to hear the comments from all of the parties involved,” Quarterman told members of a House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials.

Some committee members expressed exasperation by the delays.

“Right now there is so much uncertainty people are not going to make the investments in safer cars and people are going to continue running these crummy 111s as they are and killing people,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.

The pending redesign of the DOT-111 was a prominent topic during the first congressional hearing on rail safety since a Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train derailed in Quebec near the Maine border last July, killing 47 people. Several fiery but non-fatal derailments since then have heightened concerns about trains that haul hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields every day.

Roughly 5.3 million barrels of crude oil moved through Maine via rail last year, en route to an Irving Oil refinery in St. John, New Brunswick. Those shipments all but dried up by year’s end at least in part because of the Lac-Megantic derailment.

Railroad and petroleum industry representatives stressed that, notwithstanding the recent incidents, more than 99 percent of shipments of hazardous materials shipped via rail arrive safely. But they also acknowledged that the surge in crude shipments presents new challenges.

“It’s really remarkable when you look at what has happened. Five years ago no one would have predicted it,” said Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute.

Since October 2011, all new DOT-111s manufactured in the U.S. have been built to higher standards voluntarily adopted by the industry. But Robert Sumwalt, board member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the NTSB “is not convinced that these modifications offer sufficient improvements” and there are still about 300,000 older DOT-111s in use.

Irving Oil announced earlier this month that it planned to convert all the company’s tank cars to meet the higher specifications.

Another topic that received brief discussion on Wednesday was the issue of crew size aboard oil trains.

A single engineer operated the MM&A train that eventually broke free of its braking system and derailed in Lac-Megantic. Single-person crews were allowed in the U.S. and Canada at that time – and are still allowed in the U.S..

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, has introduced a bill that would prohibit railroads from using one-person crews but it has yet to be heard by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Michaud, a 2nd District Democrat running for governor, serves on the committee.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

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