• The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident near Cimarron, Kan.
• A cattle feed truck, which struck the rails, caused unreported damage to the railroad track
When people step aboard any Amtrak passenger train they should expect to arrive at their destination safely. However, that wasn’t the case last week when the Los Angeles to Chicago Southwest Chief derailed near Cimarron, Kan., injuring more than 30 people.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the condition of the track. An NTSB spokesman said it appeared a cattle feed truck that struck the rails shifted the track about 12 to 14 inches. Why such damage wasn’t reported immediately is mind-boggling. A notification could have prevented the Amtrak accident and what may amount to as much as $3 million in damage to the train.
The train derailed shortly after midnight March 14 after the engineer noticed a significant bend in the rail and applied the emergency brake. Eight cars derailed about 20 miles west of Dodge City.
The train with two locomotives and 10 cars had 131 passengers and 14 crew members. At least 32 people were injured, two critically, in the derailment on a section of BNSF-owned track between Dodge City and Garden City.
The McClatchy Washington Bureau reported that parts of the track in western Kansas had deteriorated so much that Amtrak was close to reducing train speeds in some locations from 60 mph to 30 mph.
Going slower may have been safer for that train and its passengers but far from efficient. Garden City, in a 2014 federal grant application, described the degraded condition of the track, noting that “much of the rail is 30 percent past its normal useful life but still in generally good condition for salvage.”
Garden City applied for a TIGER grant, which stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, begun in 2009 during President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus.
Joe Boardman, president and chief executive officer of Amtrak, said last week that millions of dollars in grant money in 2014, 2015 and 2016 would replace close to 160 miles of older, bolted rail with new, continuously welded track, enabling trains to travel more smoothly and at higher speeds. About 40 percent of the funding comes from state and local governments and BNSF.
Operators of cattle feed trucks and other vehicles must be more careful at train crossings and certainly be compelled to report damage. Beyond that, the condition of tracks all over the country remains a safety concern.
Derailments of trains carrying crude oil gained a lot of attention in the last year with spills damaging the environment and fires forcing the evacuation of area communities. New track standards were put in place along with improved tank cars.
Also, between 2018 and 2020, most railroads expect to start using positive train control, which depends on wireless radio and computers to monitor train positions and automatically slow or stop trains in danger of colliding or derailing.
It’s all to make freight and passenger rail service safer and more efficient. Despite the Kansas derailment and investigation, BNSF restored the track last week, and the Southwest Chief was back running two trains a day.
Ensuring that people and freight move safely, however, has to remain the highest priority.
New Oil Train Safety Regs Focus on Accident Response, Not Prevention
Long Phase-out of Hazardous Cars, Inadequate Speed Limits Leave Communities at Risk of Explosive Derailments
For Immediate Release, December 7, 2015
Contact: Jared Margolis, (802) 310-4054
WASHINGTON— A new transportation bill signed by President Obama includes provisions intended to improve the safety of oil trains, but leaves puncture-prone tank cars in service for years and fails to address the speed, length and weight of trains that experts point to as the leading causes of explosive derailments. The bill upgrades safety features on oil train tank cars and requires railroads to provide emergency responders with real-time information about when and where dangerous oil cargoes are being transported but doesn’t do enough to prevent oil train accidents, which have risen sharply in recent years.
“While these regulations improve our ability to prepare for oil train disasters they do virtually nothing to prevent them from ever occurring in the first place,” said Jared Margolis, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity who focuses on the impacts of energy development on endangered species. “Until we dramatically reduce the speed and length of these bomb trains it’s only a matter of time before the next explosive derailment sends fireballs rolling through one of our communities.”
The new regulations will require all oil train tank cars to include fire-resistant ceramic coatings and protections for protruding top fittings. The final rule issued by federal regulators in May only required oil trains with 35 loaded oil tank cars or 20-car blocks of oil tank cars to implement the new standards, and would not have required the ceramic blankets or top fitting protections for all retrofitted cars.
But experts say even the protective measures included in the new transportation regulations signed into law on Friday will do little to prevent a spill if a train derails at speeds faster than 18 mph, and oil trains are permitted to travel at 40 mph to 50 mph. And the new regulations do not require the phase-out of dangerous puncture-prone tank cars to begin until 2018, and allows them to remain in service until 2029.
“It’s irresponsible to continue to allow these bomb trains to roll through the middle of our communities and across some our most pristine landscapes,” said Margolis. “We need to quit pretending we can make these dangerous trains safe and simply ban them altogether.”
Congress has directed the U.S. Department of Transportation to continue requiring notifications to states of train routes and frequencies so communities can better prepare to respond to train derailments, explosions and oil spills. However, the new regulations do nothing to remedy the track infrastructure problems, or the excessive length and weight of oil trains, cited as leading causes of derailments. Further, it remains unclear whether the public will have access to information about these hazards.
“Keeping information on oil trains from public scrutiny is outrageous, and only serves to protect the corporate interests that care little about the risk to the homes, schools and wild areas that these trains threaten,” said Margolis. “We need to keep these trains off the tracks and keep these dangerous fossil fuels in the ground, rather than keeping the public in the dark.”
The National Transportation Safety Board has repeatedly found that current tank cars are prone to puncture on impact, spilling oil and often triggering destructive fires and explosions. But federal regulators have ignored the safety board’s official recommendation to stop shipping crude oil in the hazardous tank cars. Recent derailments and explosions have made clear that even the newer tank cars, known as CPC-1232s, are not significantly safer, often puncturing at low speeds.
The recent surge in U.S. and Canadian oil production, much of it from Bakken shale and Alberta tar sands, has led to a more than 4,000 percent increase in crude oil shipped by rail since 2005, primarily in trains with as many as 120 oil cars that are more than 1.5 miles long. The result has been oil spills, destructive fires, and explosions when oil trains have derailed. More oil spilled in train accidents just in 2013 than in the 38 years from 1975 to 2012 combined.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 900,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
AP: Railroads beat back new safety rules after derailments
By Matthew Brown and Michael Kunzelman, December 05, 2015
A pair of train derailments in 2012 that killed two people in Maryland and triggered a fiery explosion in Ohio exposed a little-known and unsettling truth about railroads in the U.S. and Canada: No rules govern when rail becomes too worn down to be used for hauling hazardous chemicals, thousands of tons of freight or myriad other products on almost 170,000 miles of track.
U.S. transportation officials moved to establish universal standards for when such steel gets replaced, but resistance from major freight railroads killed that bid, according to Associated Press interviews with U.S. and Canadian transportation officials, industry representatives and safety investigators.
Now, following yet another major accident linked to worn-out rails — 27 tanker cars carrying crude oil that derailed and exploded in West Virginia earlier this year — regulators are reviving the prospect of new rules for worn rails and vowing they won’t allow the industry to sideline their efforts.
“We try to look at absolutely every place where we can affect and improve safety,” said Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg. “Track generally is the place that we’re focusing at the moment, and it’s clearly overdue. Rail head wear is one place in particular that we feel like needs to be addressed as soon as possible.”
An official announcement on the agency’s intentions to revisit rail wear is expected by the end of the year.
In the meantime, federal regulators haven’t taken the positive steps that they need to, said Ronald Goldman, an attorney for the families of the two 19-year-old women who died in a 2012 derailment outside Baltimore.
“It’s a lack of will, not a lack of ability, in my opinion,” he added.
Industry supporters argue that the seven major freight railroads in the U.S. and Canada are in the best position to know what is going on with their lines, including when they need to be replaced or have the maximum speeds for trains traveling on them lowered. They also note a long-term decline in accidents that has reduced the frequency of derailments by more than 40 percent since 2000.
All sides agree it’s difficult to pinpoint how many accidents are tied to worn rail. Since 2000, U.S. officials blamed rail wear as the direct cause of 111 derailments causing $11 million in damage.
That’s less than 1 percent of all accidents, yet it masks a broader safety dilemma: Years of massive loads rolling over a rail will exacerbate defects in the steel, such as cracks or fractures. Investigators ultimately list the defect as the cause of a derailment, but it might never have been a problem if the rail had not been worn down.
“Rail defects are internal and rail wear is external, and when external meets internal, that’s when problems may arise,” said John Zuspan of Track Guy Consultants, a Pennsylvania firm that offers track inspections, safety training and other services for railroads.
Two accident causes in particular have the strongest correlation with worn-out rails: “detail fractures” that result from fatigued metal, and “vertical splits” in the head of the rail, where it makes contact with a train’s wheels, according to the FRA.
Those problems caused a combined 1,200 derailments with $300 million in damages, three deaths and 29 people injured in the U.S. between 2000 and the present, according to accident records reviewed by the AP.
Among them was the July 2012 derailment of a Norfolk Southern Railway train hauling ethanol and other products through Columbus, Ohio. Seventeen cars derailed, including three hauling highly flammable ethanol that exploded into flames, triggering an evacuation of surrounding neighborhoods.
A month later, another accident occurred involving a CSX Transportation train hauling coal over a bridge along Main Street in Ellicott City, Maryland, outside Baltimore. Twenty-one cars derailed when the company’s worn-down rail split beneath the weight of the coal cars. The two college students sitting on the bridge died, crushed by thousands of pounds of spilled coal.
The victims’ families reached a settlement with CSX last year for undisclosed terms. Goldman, the families’ attorney, said he pressed federal officials for a forum that would allow his clients to testify about the issue, but “nothing really happened.”
A month after the CSX derailment, federal regulators asked the Rail Safety Advisory Committee — a panel created by the Railroad Administration to include the industry and others in fashioning safety rules — to craft new standards to reduce the risks of worn-down rail. The committee set up a 116-person working group to tackle the problem, made up of industry representatives, government officials, consultants, researchers and railroad worker unions.
The group included 55 representatives from the major freight railroads and their industry organization, the Association of American Railroads. The FRA had 14 seats at the table and their counterparts from Transport Canada had five.
Following several meetings in 2012 and 2013, the group — which required consensus before recommending action — agreed on voluntary guidance for companies to manage rail wear, but no new regulations.
“There was certainly a lot of pushback and a lot of political pressure put on FRA not to adopt regulations for rail wear,” said Richard Inclima, director of safety for the union that represents track inspectors and a member of the working group. “Rail wear limits were on the table. The industry raised a lot of arguments against rail wear limits.”
“The industry doesn’t want to be regulated,” he added. “That’s no secret.”
The railroads’ opposition was confirmed by others involved with the group’s work including from the National Transportation Safety Board, the FRA and Transport Canada.
Association of American Railroads spokesman Ed Greenberg said the railroads were “unaware of any science-based data supporting rail wear limits.”
NTSB investigator Richard Hipskind, who took part in the Ellicott City and Columbus accident investigations and later served on the rail wear working group, said more research would be needed to establish universal standards.
Railroads have their own internal standards for rail wear, and have replaced more than 30,000 miles of rail since 2010, according to reports submitted by the major railroads to the U.S Surface Transportation Board, a semiautonomous agency under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Standards vary among railroads and are complicated by differences in how much weight a given line bears, whether it’s in a wet or dry climate, and if the line goes through mountains or involves lots of turns. Those variables can make the difference between well-worn rail that’s still safe and routes that poses a heightened safety hazard, according to industry experts and safety officials.
Greenberg said the industry takes an aggressive approach to identifying and removing defective or worn sections of rail.
“Each railroad has its distinct operating environment and operating conditions that would be factored into this,” Greenberg said. He added that the industry was now interested in “renewed dialogue” with the FRA on the topic.
The AP requested details on rail wear standards from each of the seven major freight railroads — BNSF Railway, Union Pacific, Canadian Pacific, CSX, Canadian National, Norfolk Southern and Kansas City Southern. They either refused the request or referred questions to the railroad association, which also declined to release the standards.
Public attention to train derailments increased sharply after July 2013, when an out-of-control oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. One of the most significant changes to emerge from that and other accidents involving crude and ethanol was a mandate for companies to phase out or upgrade tens of thousands of tank cars that are prone to rupture.
Those are important changes, said James Horbay, a rail safety engineer with Transport Canada. But what causes trains to come off the tracks in the first place needs to be resolved, he said.
“If you crash an airplane, are you going to say, ‘Let’s build an airplane that’s not going to fall apart when it hits the ground?'” he asked. “Whether rail wear is something that should be looked at is a good question to ask. You’re going right to the cause now.”
Matthew Brown reported from Billings, Montana. Michael Kunzelman reported from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Repost from the Billings Gazette [Editor: Note the industry terminology: “BNSF attributes the July 16 incident…to ‘thermal misalignment,’ also known as sun kink, which occurs when rail tracks expand when heated and buckle.” …Will we see more of this with global warming? – RS]
Heat caused Montana train derailments, BNSF says
By Amy Dalrymple, Forum News Service, Nov 4, 2015
CULBERTSON — Two July train derailments in Eastern Montana, including one that spilled 35,000 gallons of Bakken crude, were caused by tracks that buckled in the heat, according to BNSF Railway.
BNSF attributes the July 16 incident that caused 22 oil tankers to derail east of Culbertson to “thermal misalignment,” also known as sun kink, which occurs when rail tracks expand when heated and buckle.
The company also attributes the same cause to the July 14 train derailment about 10 miles west of Culbertson, said BNSF spokesman Matthew Jones.
The Federal Railroad Administration said Tuesday the agency’s investigation into the derailments is still ongoing.
BNSF reported to the FRA that the two derailments caused $3.2 million in damage, including nearly $2 million in equipment damage and more than $1.2 million in track damage.
In the July 16 incident, a westbound train containing 106 crude oil tankers that had been loaded in Trenton, N.D., derailed about five miles east of Culbertson. Twenty-two tankers derailed, with five cars releasing oil, according to information submitted to the FRA.
BNSF and contractors recovered the spilled oil and removed and replaced about 3,900 cubic yards of contaminated soil, Jones said.
On July 14, nine cars on an eastbound mixed merchandise train derailed west of Culbertson, but the cars remained upright and did not cause a spill.
BNSF inspects tracks and bridges more frequently than required by the FRA, including visual inspections and inspections using rail cars equipped with advanced technology, Jones said.
Meanwhile, a legislative audit released last week highlights weaknesses in Montana’s oversight of rail safety, calling attention to a lack of emergency response resources in northeast Montana.
The report by the Montana Legislative Audit Division said the state’s rail safety inspection program is not adequate and first-responders are not adequately trained and equipped to respond to incidents involving hazardous materials.
Northeast Montana does not have a regional hazmat team, primarily due to a lack of hazmat trained and equipped firefighters and the lack of a full-time, salaried fire department, the report said. The closest hazmat team is in Billings, 300 miles from Culbertson.
When a new oil transloading facility in East Fairview, N.D., is at full capacity, Montana may see as many as 40 oil trains each week, the report said.
Montana’s Public Service Commission, which discussed the audit during a meeting Tuesday, would need statutory authority and resources from the state Legislature to expand its oversight of rail safety, said Eric Sell, a spokesman for the agency. Sell noted that the Federal Railroad Administration has primary oversight of rail safety.
BNSF train derailments that were caused by the tracks occurred at a rate of 0.38 incidents per million train miles last year, Jones said, noting the rate is 50 percent better than 10 years ago.
Another recent train derailment involving Bakken crude near Heimdal, N.D., remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. Six oil tankers derailed and four caught fire in May.