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Rail industry fights Obama's retrofit push

WASHINGTON -- The oil industry and U.S. railroads are resisting the Obama administration's attempt to boost safety standards for the type of rail car involved in a fiery, fatal explosion in Canada, citing costs and technical challenges.

Industry groups say it is impractical to retrofit tens of thousands of existing tank cars used to haul oil, even as they have adopted voluntary standards to ensure that cars ordered after October 2011 meet tough requirements recommended by federal transportation experts after a deadly ethanol train derailment and explosion two years earlier in Illinois.

A proposed rule to beef up railcar safety was initially scheduled to be put in place last October, but it has been delayed until late September at the earliest. The delay is blamed on the time it has taken to seek and review petitions from industry groups and the public. A final rule isn't expected until next year.

The agency is considering a plan intended to fix a dangerous design flaw in a rail car commonly used to haul oil and other hazardous liquids from coast to coast. The soda-can shaped car, known as the DOT-111, has come under scrutiny from safety experts because of its tendency to split open during derailments and other major accidents.

Defects in the car's structure were noted as far back as 1991.

The rail industry estimates that retrofitting older cars would cost at least $1 billion, not including lost-service time for cars removed from the fleet for repairs. "By comparison, derailment costs totaled approximately $64 million over the past five years," the Association of American Railroads said in a 2011 petition to the federal government. Extra weight from retrofitting cars might even cause overloads, potentially making them less safe, the group said.

Officials from an Illinois town near the site of a 2009 ethanol train derailment call the railroads' stance illogical.

An unattended Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train came loose July 6 and hurtled down a 7-mile incline before derailing and igniting in Lac-Mégantic, near the Maine border. The fiery explosion killed at least 47 people. The derailment and resulting explosion are under investigation. It's unclear whether retrofitted cars would have been able to withstand the impact.

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