Feds toughen rules on rail cars

The federal government on Monday ordered that new rail tanker cars be built stronger to prevent the release of dangerous chemicals.

The Department of Transportation's order is intended to protect residents living near railroads from crashes such as derailments in 2005 and 2006 in Western Pennsylvania that forced evacuations.

"Any type of regulation on chemical stuff is good," said Jeffrey Kauper of Blawnox, who lives near a railroad. "That way it's a little bit safer."

A derailment prompted the evacuation of about 200 people between Etna and East Deer in 2005, when one of three tankers carrying hydrogen fluoride leaked into the Allegheny River. When exposed to the air, hydrogen fluoride becomes hydrofluoric acid, which can be fatal if inhaled.

In 2006, twenty-three tanker cars carrying ethanol derailed in New Brighton. Nine of the cars caught fire and two exploded. About 100 families were evacuated.

"Rail is always a concern because of the quantity," said Richard Matason, director of the Westmoreland County Department of Public Safety. "On a highway, you might have a tanker truck carrying 8,000 gallons of gasoline. When you watch a train come by, you're watching as many as 50 to 60 cars."

The federal ruling will make tanker cars built on or after March 16 more puncture-resistant.

Tankers carrying one of about 20 materials that are hazardous to people when inhaled must obey a 50-mph speed limit.

There are an estimated 15,000 tank cars in the United States that carry such materials, said Tom White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads.

"We applaud the rule to increase the strength of the tank cars," White said.

Three wrecks prompted the rule: a 2002 derailment in North Dakota that leaked anhydrous ammonia, and a 2004 collision in Texas and 2005 wreck in South Carolina, both involving the release of chlorine.

The Transportation Department in June adopted a rule that requires railroads transporting hazardous materials to follow routes with the fewest safety and security risks.