Tag Archives: Track maintenance

AP: Railroads beat back new safety rules after derailments

Repost from the Boston Herald

AP: Railroads beat back new safety rules after derailments

By Matthew Brown and Michael Kunzelman, December 05, 2015

FILE -In this Monday, Feb. 23, 2015, file photo, clean up continues near Mount Carbon, W.Va., where a train derailed and sent a tanker with crude oil into the Kanawha River. A little-known truth about North American railroads: No rules govern when rail becomes too worn down. Since 2000, U.S. officials blamed rail wear as the direct cause of 111 derailments causing $11 million in damage. (AP Photo/Chris Tilley, File)

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. 
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States Step Up Scrutiny of Oil Train Shipments

Repost from GOVERNING The States and Localities

States Step Up Scrutiny of Oil Train Shipments

Some states are looking to prevent more derailments and spills, but the freight industry doesn’t want more regulation.
 By Daniel C. Vock | August 26, 2015

In 2014, several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along the James River near downtown Lynchburg, Va. (AP/Steve Helber)

When it comes to regulating railroads, states usually let the federal government determine policy. But mounting concerns about the safety of oil trains are making states bolder. In recent months, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington state have taken steps to strengthen oversight of the freight rail industry.

The three join several other states — mostly led by Democrats — in policing oil shipments through inspection, regulation and even lawsuits. Washington, for example, applied a 4-cent-per-barrel tax on oil moved by trains to help pay for clean-ups of potential spills. The new law also requires freight rail companies to notify local emergency personnel when oil trains would pass through their communities.

“This means that at a time when the number of oil trains running through Washington is skyrocketing, oil companies will be held accountable for playing a part in preventing and responding to spills,” said Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee when signing the measure this spring.

The flurry of state activity comes in response to a huge surge in the amount of oil transported by rail in the last few years. Oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and nearby states must travel by train to refineries and ports because there are few pipelines or refineries on the Great Plains. The type of oil found in North Dakota is more volatile — that is, more likely to catch on fire — than most varieties of crude.

Public concerns about the safety of trains carrying oil have increased with the derailments in places like Galena, Ill.; Mt. Carbon, W. Va.; Aliceville, Ala.; Lynchburg, Va.; Casselton, N.D.; and especially Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where 47 people died in 2013.

Federal regulators responded to these incidents by requiring railroads to upgrade their oil train cars, to double check safety equipment on unattended trains, and to tell states when and where oil trains would be passing through their borders. This last requirement was hard won. This summer, the Federal Railroad Administration tried to encourage states to sign nondisclosure agreements with railroads about the location of oil trains. After several states balked, the agency relented.

California, Louisiana, New Jersey, Ohio and Oklahoma have all signed nondisclosure agreements, while Idaho, Illinois, Montana, North Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin have refused to do so, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

A Maryland judge earlier this month ruled against two rail carriers, Norfolk Southern and CSX, that wanted to block the state’s environmental agency from releasing details of their oil shipments. The railroads have until early next month to decide whether to appeal.

“The ruling isn’t the first time railroads have lost their bid to keep the oil train reports secret,” wrote reporter Curtis Tate of McClatchy, one of the news organizations that requested the records, “but it is the first court decision recognizing the public’s right to see them.”

Many states want this information so that fire departments and other emergency personnel can prepare for a potential derailment. California passed a law last year imposing clean-up fees on oil shipped by rail. The railroad industry challenged the law in court, but a judge ruled this summer that the lawsuit was premature. Minnesota passed a similar law last year, and New York added rail inspectors to cope with the increase in oil train traffic. A 1990 federal law lets states pass their own rules to prepare for oil spills, as long as those rules are at least as rigorous as federal regulations.

In Pennsylvania, which handles 60 to 70 oil trains a week, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf asked a University of Delaware expert to help to improve safety of oil trains traveling through the state. The professor, Allan Zarembski, produced 27 recommendations for the state and the railroads. He called on the state to improve its inspection processes of railroad tracks, particularly for tracks leading into rail yards, side tracks and refineries that often handle oil trains. The professor also encouraged the state to coordinate emergency response work with the railroads and local communities.

Zarembski’s suggestions for the railroads focused on how they should test for faulty tracks, wheel bearings and axles. Most major derailments in recent years were caused by faulty track or broken equipment, not human error, he noted in his report.

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Train derailment caused by track problem Metro knew about in July

Repost from Fox5 Washington DC

Metro knew about track problem in July

By Marina Marraco, Aug 13 2015 10:18AM EDT

The derailment of a non-passenger train outside the Smithsonian Metro station last Thursday was caused by a track defect that was discovered on July 9 but not fixed, Metro said.

The transit agency is again facing public scrutiny after the derailment happened as the morning commute got underway that day. A six-car train was leaving the rail yard and gearing up for service near the Smithsonian Metro station.

Metro interim general manager and CEO Jack Requa said the train’s wheels lost contact with the rail due to an infrastructure problem known as “wide gauge.” The rail had widen so much that it caused the wheels to lose grip from the tracks and the train’s eventual derailment.

“The one that was detected was a Code Black defect,” said Metro deputy general manager Rob Troup. “That track should have been taken out of service at that period of time.”

“I want to take this opportunity to again and again apologize to our customers,” Requa said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference.

He said he could not defend the transit agency’s failure to repair the issue prior to the derailment.

“This is totally unacceptable,” said Requa. “It is unacceptable to me and it should be unacceptable to everyone within the chain of command, all the way down to track laborers and track inspectors who are out on the lines on a first-line basis.”

Following the derailment, Requa ordered a system-wide inspection of every mile of track, which could take up to a month to complete. He said customers can expect delays in the coming days as possible additional track repairs are made.

Requa apologized to customers for Thursday’s derailment and delays caused by a power issue the following day.

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