Tag Archives: National Transportation Safety Board

Derailed oil train’s crew told investigators they had seconds to escape

Repost from McClatchy Washington Bureau

Derailed oil train’s crew told investigators they had seconds to escape

By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau, April 27, 2015

The engineer and conductor on a BNSF oil train that derailed in North Dakota in December 2013 had seconds to escape their locomotive before it was engulfed by fire, according to interview transcripts made available Monday by federal accident investigators.

The interviews, conducted in January 2014 by the National Transportation Safety Board, show the occupational risks railroad workers face, especially with trains carrying hazardous materials. The train’s engineer is suing BNSF, and says the wreck left him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

They also show that emergency responders did not initially understand the severity of the situation they faced when two trains derailed near Casselton, N.D., on Dec. 30, 2013. One of them was carrying grain, and the other, crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region.

The train’s engineer, Bryan Thompson, told investigators that he had only seconds to react before the oil train, traveling 43 mph, hit a derailed grain car in its path.

He activated the emergency braking system, but he knew from nine years of experience that virtually nothing could stop the 13,335 tons of train behind him from going off the track. He told his conductor to hit the floor and brace for impact.

“I knew what was coming,” he told investigators, “and I honestly said a prayer. It was really quick.”

Thompson and the conductor, Pete Riepl, were not injured when the locomotive came to rest. But almost immediately, they noticed that the train was on fire, and they needed to get away. They couldn’t exit through the front of the locomotive: The impact with the overturned grain car had jammed the door.

Their only choice was to exit through the back of the locomotive, which forced them to go toward the rapidly encroaching fire.

“That’s the last place you want to go,” Thompson said, “ but it was our only escape.”

Riepl told investigators that the pair got about 200 yards away before they looked back and saw that their locomotive was engulfed in flames.

He also said that several minutes after the derailment, tank cars began exploding, in succession, one about every 10 minutes.

Thompson left his belongings in the locomotive cab, save for his coat _ it was about 20 degrees below zero that day _ and cellphone. He called 911. The dispatcher asked him if she needed to call the local fire department.

“I said, ‘you need to call every fire department,’” Thompson said he told the dispatcher.

The 911 dispatcher instructed Thompson to report to the incident command center established at a local high school. Once there, Thompson said he could hear over radio chatter that people were watching the train burn. In similar situations, authorities usually recommend a half-mile evacuation radius.

“I don’t think you understand what’s going on here,” he said he told a deputy sheriff. “You need to get those people away from there.”

Thompson asked the deputy if he knew about the deadly oil train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people in July 2013. He told the deputy that his train was carrying the same kind of cargo: Bakken crude.

“And his eyes got big, you know,” Thompson said, “then he said ‘Code Red’ on his radio.”

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    McClatchy Exclusive: Report details causes of West Virginia oil train fire

    Repost from McClatchyDC News

    Rail defect, tank car valves implicated in West Virginia oil train fire

    By Curtis Tate,  April 16, 2015

    — Outlet valves underneath four tank cars in a February oil train derailment in West Virginia were sheared off and the 50,000 gallons of crude oil they released ignited in a fire that subsequently caused several nearby rail cars to explode, according to a federal report.

    The report also identified the initial cause of the Feb. 16 derailment in Mount Carbon, W.Va., as a broken rail on track owned and maintained by CSX and said more than 362,000 gallons of crude oil were released. The fires and explosions from the derailment kept 300 residents away from their homes.

    The report, which appeared Thursday in the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s hazardous materials incident database, highlights another issue with the design of the tank cars used to carry crude oil and their ability to resist damage from derailments and fire exposure.

    The Mount Carbon derailment was one of four oil train derailments since the beginning of the year that resulted in large fires. On March 5, an oil train operated by BNSF derailed near Galena, Ill. Two other oil trains derailed in Ontario on Canadian National, one in February and one in March.

    Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board issued recommendations that tank cars used to transport flammable liquids must have thermal insulation to protect them from the kind of fire exposure that can result in explosions.

    Federal regulations require tank cars to survive 100 minutes of fire exposure. However, eight tank cars failed within 90 minutes after the derailment, their contents exploding in giant fireballs, according to the NTSB.

    The NTSB recommendations did not address the apparent cause of the initial fire: the failure of the bottom valves on the cars used in unloading.

    A set of new regulations on tank car construction the government may release in the next few weeks include requirements to remove bottom valve handles or to protect them from opening in a derailment. But they would not require the valves’ removal altogether.

    Removing the valves would mean expensive modifications at unloading facilities that have popped up across the country as a surge in energy production has moved by rail in recent years.

    Members of Congress impatient with the pace at which new regulations have moved have begun introducing legislation to require more robust tank car construction. Regulators and lawmakers also are pushing for increased track inspections.

    The particular type of internal defect that led to the broken rail in West Virginia, called a vertical split head, can be difficult to detect with a visual inspection, according to Sperry, a company that makes vehicles that perform ultrasonic rail inspections.

    Federal law requires that railroads inspect most mainline track twice a week, with at least one calendar day between inspections. A CSX regional vice president told reporters a day after the derailment that the track in Mount Carbon had been inspected three days earlier.

    Rob Doolittle, a CSX spokesman, said in an email Thursday that the company looked forward to learning more about the Federal Railroad Administration’s accident investigation.

    “Safety is CSX’s highest priority and we carefully evaluate the ascribed cause of each incident to apply whatever lessons are available to make our operations safer,” he said.

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      Wall Street Journal: Fewer Oil Trains Ply America’s Rails

      Repost from The Wall Street Journal

      Fewer Oil Trains Ply America’s Rails

      Safety concerns, low crude prices depress train traffic

      By Alison Sider, April 6, 2015 3:30 p.m. ET
      In March, oil-train traffic was down 7% from a year earlier. The slowdown comes amid safety concerns. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News

      The growth in oil-train shipments fueled by the U.S. energy boom has stalled in recent months, dampened by safety problems and low crude prices.

      The number of train cars carrying crude and other petroleum products peaked last fall, according to data from the Association of American Railroads, and began edging down. In March, oil-train traffic was down 7% on a year-over-year basis.

      Railroads have been a major beneficiary of the U.S. energy boom, as oil companies turned to trains to move crude to refineries from remote oil fields in North Dakota and other areas not served by pipelines. Rail shipments of oil have expanded from 20 million barrels in 2010 to just under 374 million barrels last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

      About 1.38 million barrels a day of oil and fuels like gasoline rode the rails in March, versus an average of 1.5 million barrels a day in the same period a year ago, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of the railroad association’s data.

      Oil-train traffic declined 1% in the fourth quarter of 2014 as crude-oil prices started to tumble toward $50 a barrel. More recently, data from the U.S. Energy Department show oil-train movements out of the prolific Bakken Shale in North Dakota have leveled off as drillers there have begun to pump less, though oil-train shipments from the Rocky Mountain region have risen.

      WSJ_Shipped-By-US_Rail_2014-15The slowdown comes as federal safety experts call for stronger tank cars. On Monday the National Transportation Safety Board recommended an aggressive five-year schedule for phasing out or upgrading older railcars used to haul crude-oil. A string of oil train accidents in recent months have resulted in spills, intense fires and community evacuations. The NTSB said railcars in use today rupture too quickly and aren’t fire-resistant enough.

      A few incidents have involved more modern tank cars—the CPC-1232 model. The NTSB also said the new railcar’s design isn’t sturdy enough. “We can’t wait a decade for safer rail cars,” said NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart Monday in a letter to federal transportation regulators.

      Opponents of a fast phaseout have said that if tougher standards are introduced too quickly it will create a railcar shortage and make some oil train operations unprofitable.

      Many refiners, including Philadelphia Energy Solutions, say they are still committed to shipping oil on trains. Chief Executive Phil Rinaldi in December said he likes that railroads don’t require long-term contractual agreements the way pipelines do. That allows his plant managers to buy crude only when it’s needed.

      With pipelines, “you have to pay for that transit whether it makes sense or not,” Mr. Rinaldi said. “With rail, that’s not the case.”

      Railroad operators have warned investors that their outlook for transporting crude is slightly weaker than it was last year, said David Vernon, a rail analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

      BNSF Railway Co., which is responsible for about 70% of U.S. oil-train traffic, operated as many as 10 trains a day last year, but is averaging nine a day now, a spokesman said.

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