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BNSF Tankers

Tank cars pass through the BNSF yard near West O Street in Lincoln on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014.

WASHINGTON — The oil industry and the railroads that haul its crude oil have offered U.S. regulators a joint plan to phase out a type of older tank car linked to recent fiery accidents, according to sources familiar with the proposal.

The plan also calls for slightly thicker walls for new cars to make them less vulnerable to puncture, according to the sources, who asked not to be identified for discussing private communications. The parties agreed to scrap a fleet of thousands of cars known as DOT-111s within three years if manufacturers agree they can replace or retrofit the tank cars in that period.

The National Transportation Safety Board said DOT-111s in wide use are vulnerable to rupture.

Representatives of the American Petroleum Institute and the Association of American Railroads met with officials of the Transportation Department and Office of Management and Budget on July 11 to present their plan, one of the sources said. 

The joint plan represents a change from recent history, as oil companies and railroads have sparred over design and safety proposals. Rail companies said new tank cars were needed, while oil companies stressed greater attention to avoid derailments. The Transportation Department had encouraged the groups to forge a common position.

Coincidentally, two environmental groups asked the Department of Transportation to immediately ban shipments of volatile crude oil in older railroad tank cars. The petition filed Tuesday by the Sierra Club and ForestEthics seeks an emergency order within 30 days to prohibit crude from the Northern Plains' Bakken region and elsewhere from being carried in the older tank cars.

U.S. regulators, along with their counterparts in Canada, are weighing steps that can be taken to increase the safety of trains moving oil by rail because of a number of accidents, including a wreck a year ago in Quebec that killed 47.

Officials from the Washington-based API and AAR didn't respond to requests for comment. AAR represents companies such as Berkshire Hathaway's BNSF Railway and Union Pacific. Ryan Daniels, a spokesman for the Transportation Department, said he can't comment on a continuing rulemaking.

If adopted by federal officials, the industry plan would require a significant investment by oil and leasing companies that own rail cars.

Until recently, trains didn't carry much oil. Now as many as 10 trains with 100 or more tank cars filled with crude leave North Dakota, home to a booming oil and natural gas industry, every day for refineries across the U.S. Carloads of oil jumped to 408,000 last year from 11,000 in 2009, according to the railroad group. Some of those cars and others filled with ethanol cross Nebraska every day, but the state of Nebraska has refused to disclose numbers.  

The U.S. Transportation Department has taken interim steps to respond to what it's called an imminent hazard. 

Tank car owners have balked at the cost, estimated as high as $60,000 each, to modify tank cars to new specifications. The cost wasn't clear for the design agreed to by API and AAR.

Earlier, BNSF Railway said it will order 5,000 cars built to specifications more stringent than those discussed by the industry.  

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