Repost from the Houston Chronicle
To boost the safety of moving oil by rail, focus on the tracks, paper argues
Infrastructure report says broken rails and human error are also problems as shipments of crude increaseBy Jennifer A. Dlouhy, August 6, 2015
WASHINGTON – More can be done to boost the safety of moving oil by rail by focusing on the tracks themselves, according to a white paper released Thursday by a group promoting infrastructure investments.
New rules requiring more resilient tank cars are an important step, the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure said, but regulators, railroads and shippers now need to do more to combat the leading cause of derailments, including broken rails and human error.
From integrity sensors to measurement systems, an array of technologies can help ensure tracks are sound, said Brigham McCown, chairman of the alliance and a former head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
“We tend to be reactionary. Something happened, so what are we going to do to fix it?” McCown told reporters Thursday. “We focus on the accident, rather than focusing on a long-term proactive engagement of reducing the potential for accidents to begin with.”
The issue has drawn attention amid a surge in oil-by-rail traffic. As trains carry crude across the United States to refineries and ports, there has also been a series of fiery derailments involving tank cars carrying that hazardous material.
Over 22 pages, the alliance’s white paper makes the case that railroads and regulators can leverage technology to make existing inspection programs more efficient and effective.
Existing regulations, updated in 2014, already mandate both track and rail inspections – the former often entails workers examining the physical conditions of track structures and the roadbed by foot or by vehicle, with that monitoring required as frequently as weekly in some cases. Rail inspections use ultrasonic or induction testing to identify hidden internal defects, with their timing generally pegged to the amount of traffic on rail segments.
The Federal Railroad Administration also requires other probes, including monthly inspections of switches, turnouts, track crossings and other devices.
Many railroads go above and beyond those inspection requirements.
“Freight railroads spend billions of dollars every year on maintaining and further modernizing the nation’s rail network, including safety enhancing rail infrastructure and equipment,” said Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads. “At any point during the day or night, the nation’s rail network is being inspected, maintained or being upgraded.”
But the infrastructure alliance reiterates a previous assertion by the National Transportation Safety Board, that track inspections are undermined when a single worker can inspect multiple lines at the same time, as currently allowed.
And McCown emphasized that existing technology can boost the odds of catching broken rails and other problems before an accident.