ABOUT 100 MILLION TONS of hazardous materials are moved by railcar each year. Some 95,000 rail tank cars in regular service in the United States and Canada each year carry such hazardous products as propane, chlorine, sulfuric acids, vinyl chloride and flammable liquids such as gasoline and other fuels.

Without these materials, industry in North America would literally stop. Moving the materials safely, therefore, is the only alternative. Not moving them is not an option.Some 15 years ago, high incidence of spillage from derailed tank cars alarmed the nation. Faced with investigations from Congress and the Federal Railroad Administration, the railroad industry spurred by the Association of American Railroads began trying to improve tank car safety. After extensive study, the industry-sponsored Tank Car Safety Research and Test Project proved what most operators and tank car manufacturers already knew: that when tank cars derailed, the couplings that held the cars together became disengaged and the loose male coupling often ended up spearing a hole in the tank car.

Three solutions were developed. (1) Incorporating top and bottom shields on the coupler head, which would prevent disengagement in most cases; (2) Welding one-half inch steel head shields on the ends of tank cars to further protect against puncture; and (3) Spraying tank cars with thermal insulation coatings, which reduces fire danger threefold.

To date, 120,000 tank cars have been retrofitted with top and bottom shields on coupler heads. All the liquid compressed gas tank cars have been retrofitted with one-half inch head shields and about 6,000 other tank cars have been similarly retrofitted. Some 19,000 tank cars have been sprayed with fire retardant insulation. More than $200 million has been spent to make these safety improvements.

Has it done any good? In 1981 there were 299 incidents involving 670 derailed tank cars in which 66 of the cars, or roughly 10 percent, lost lading. Last year, there were 323 incidents involving 785 cars derailed of which 47, or 6 percent, lost lading. It should be pointed out that the number of carloads of hazardous materials increased from 1,023,000 carloads in 1981 to 1,113,000 in 1985. Also, between 1981 and 1985, not a single person was killed from a rail accident involving hazardous materials. Injuries dropped

from 217 in 1981 to 51 last year.

We were critical of the railroad industry back in 1969. It has taken over 15 years to make the improvements but improvements have been made. The FRA sees it as a good job well done, too. Once technical agreements were reached on the retrofit program, the industry implemented it expeditiously and on schedule with results that have exceeded everyone's expectations, says Phillip Olekfzyk, associate administrator for safety at the FRA.

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