Nightly News   |  September 05, 2013

How safe are oil-carrying trains?

Critics worry trains carrying tons of crude oil aren’t safe and pose a danger to surrounding communities. NBC’s Lisa Myers reports.

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>>> our nbc news investigative unit has a special report for us tonight. it's about rail safety in this country and a growing part of the freight business we see, specifically the tanker cars that you see go by filled with crude oil and ethanol. about 600,000 of them traveled by rail last year. that means if you lined them all up in a straight line, it would stretch will all the way across the country 2 1/2 times. the potential problem here is the vast majority of these cars may have serious safety defects. the same kind of cars involved in that deadly accident in canada earlier this summer. our report tonight from our senior investigative correspondent lisa myers .

>> reporter: morrissey and his family sleep with one eye open. they live right by the tracks in the chicago suburbs where traffic has jumped from 5 to 20 trains a day.

>> even asleep at night we're listening for the trains to go by and making sure that nothing sounds out of order.

>> reporter: their greatest fear, that the massive black tank cars that go barreling by filled with flammable ethanol or crude oil will with derail and catch fire or stloed. they're called d.o.t. 111s. 5 times in 20 years the national transportation safety board has warned that their design is unsafe and that they urgently need to be upgraded. most recently after a 2009 it derailment in which cars ruptured and killed a woman by the tracks. safety experts say there are basically two big problems. it lacks protective head shields at the ends, and the shell is too thin, which means it ruptures too easily in an accident. two years ago, the rail and oil industries agreed to make new tank cars safer and built several thousand of them. but they oppose upgrading tens of thousands of old cars, saying it's not technically feasible and too expensive.

>> if we don't start upgrading these cars soon, my concern is that we will have a catastrophic event.

>> reporter: in a statement, the railroads say they're constantly working to improve safety and that 99.997% of hazardous cargo arrives safely. but that's little comfort to families in quebec. 47 died when d.o.t. 111 derailed this summer. this is what's left after dozens of tankers full of crude oil crashed and burned, wiping out an entire downtown. one of those killed, kareen champagne. her brother martin now cares for her two children.

>> this destroyed us.

>> reporter: the railroads say there's only a tiny, tiny chance that anything would ever happen.

>> we got the tiny chance here. it killed a lot of good people.

>> reporter: steve morrissey's family is taking no chances, preparing an emergency evacuation plan in case of an accident.

>> i have told my family that it would be not a matter of if but a matter of when. it's just a matter of how we stay prepared.

>> reporter: lisa myers , nbc news, barrington, illinois.