Category Archives: National Transportation Safety Board

NY TIMES / AP: Slow Progress Seen on Faulty Rail Cars

Repost from the New York Times (AP)

Upgrades to Unsafe Tank Cars Could Take 15 Years, Board Says

By Matthew Brown, Associated Press, July 13, 2016, 2:30 A.M. E.D.T.
Oil Train Accidents
FILE–In this June 3, 2016, file frame from video provided by KGW-TV, smoke billows from a Union Pacific train that derailed near Mosier, Ore., in the scenic Columbia River Gorge. U.S. safety officials say they’ve seen slow progress in efforts to upgrade or replace tens of thousands of rupture-prone rail cars used to transport oil and ethanol, despite a string of fiery derailments. (KGW-TV via AP, file)

BILLINGS, Mont. — Accident-prone tank cars used to haul crude oil and ethanol by rail could remain in service for another 15 years under federal rules that allow companies to phase in upgrades to the aging fleet, according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.

Transportation officials and railroad representatives have touted the rules as a key piece of their efforts to stave off future disasters, following a string of fiery derailments and major spills that raised concerns about the crude-by-rail industry.

Yet without mandatory, periodic benchmarks for meeting the requirements, the decision to upgrade to safer tank car designs “is left entirely to tank car fleet owners, and may be driven by market factor influences, not safety improvements,” NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said in a letter Tuesday to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Tom Simpson with the Railway Supply Institute, which represents tank car manufacturers and owners, said the industry is committed to putting stronger cars in place. Members of the group will meet deadlines for replacing or upgrading the cars, he said, noting that demand for rail cars has eased after crude-by-rail shipments decreased over the past two years in response to lower oil prices.

“The need to modify or install new cars isn’t as urgent as when the rule was issued,” Simpson said.

In recent years, accidents involving the older cars have occurred in Oregon, Montana, North Dakota, Illinois, West Virginia and Canada.

The most notable was in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where 47 people were killed when a runaway oil train derailed in 2013. During the most recent accident last month in Oregon, 42,000 gallons of crude oil spilled, sparking a massive fire that burned for 14 hours near the small town of Mosier in the Columbia River Gorge.

Cars built before the rule was enacted do not have to be fully replaced until 2029, although most would have to come off the tracks sooner.

Just over 10,300 stronger tank cars mandated by the new rules are available for service, according to figures obtained by The Associated Press from the Association of American Railroads.

That’s equivalent to roughly 20 percent of the 51,500 tank cars used to haul crude and ethanol during the first quarter of 2016.

Transportation Department Press Secretary Clark Pettig said in response to the NTSB’s criticism that the schedule to retrofit older cars was locked in by Congress in a transportation bill approved last year. The Congressional deadline represents “the absolute last moment” to meet the new standards, Pettig said.

“We agree with NTSB that industry should work to beat those deadlines,” he said.

A Wednesday meeting was planned in Washington, D.C., where government and industry officials were set to update the safety board on progress addressing the issue.

Safety board member Robert Sumwalt told the Associated Press that federal regulators need to set milestones to hold the industry accountable.

“There’s been 28 accidents over the past 10 years. That’s almost three accidents a year,” Sumwalt said. “Unfortunately, history shows we probably will have more accidents involving flammable liquids.”

A bill from U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and other Democratic lawmakers would offer tax credits for companies that upgrade their cars during the next several years.

“Communities near train tracks, like Mosier, Oregon, must be confident that companies are using the safest tank cars possible,” Wyden said.

The railroad association said only 700 of the least resilient model of the older-style tank cars remain in service. Most of the cars in current use have at least some improvements, such as shields at either end of the car to help prevent punctures during derailments.

Transportation officials cautioned, however, that thousands of idled “legacy cars” could quickly come back online if oil prices rise and shipment volumes rebound.

Most tank cars are owned or leased by companies that ship fuel by rail, not the railroads themselves.

“Every tank car carrying crude or ethanol needs to be upgraded or replaced,” said railroad association spokesman Ed Greenberg.

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    NPR: Why Feds Chose Not To Investigate Oil Train Derailment In Columbia Gorge

    Repost from OPB.org, Oregon Public Broadcasting
    [Editor/Background: Here is the  June 9 letter Senators Wyden and Merkley sent to the NTSB. Here is the NTSB’s full 48-page response. (Or jump to page 1 of the NTSB letter below.)  – RS]

    Why Feds Chose Not To Investigate Oil Train Derailment In Columbia Gorge

    By Tony Schick OPB/EarthFix | July 7, 2016 4:45 p.m. | Updated: July 8, 2016 9:06 a.m.
    A 16-car oil train derailment caused a fire and left a small oil sheen on the Columbia River.
    A 16-car oil train derailment caused a fire and left a small oil sheen on the Columbia River. CONRAD WILSON

    The National Transportation Safety Board has responded to letter from Oregon’s senators about why it did not investigate last month’s oil train derailment in the Columbia River Gorge, saying its limited staff likely would not have gleaned any new safety recommendations from examining the incident.

    The federal agency provided a 50-page response to Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, saying it “recognizes the impact of this accident on your constituents and understands the concerns of those affected.”

    The NTSB said it did not send a team to Mosier because the incident involved no injuries or fatalities and because early information gathered from Union Pacific Railroad, first responders and the Federal Railroad Administration “indicated that the circumstances of this accident did not pose any new significant safety issues.”

    Specifically, federal investigators have seen tank cars rupture before when carrying flammable liquids. Their response to the Oregon senators included a list of 23 known incidents in North America involving crude oil, ethanol or other flammable liquids.

    The NTSB opened an investigation into only nine of those and has not yet closed any, according to data relased in the response.

    Wyden said he will be scrutinizing whether the agency needs to increase the size of its investigative staff.

    “As I keep working to build support in Congress for my bill, I will also continue to look at ways to improve oil-by-rail safety,” Wyden said. “I find it very disturbing that the NTSB did not appear to have enough resources to send an investigative team to Oregon to more closely examine the Mosier accident.”


    Read: NTSB Response to Wyden, Merkley

    Page 1 of NTSB-Response-to-Merkley-Wyden-07-05-2016

    Page 1 of NTSB-Response-to-Merkley-Wyden-07-05-2016

    Contributed to DocumentCloud by Tony Schick of EarthFix

    Emergency crews on June 4, 2016, found an oil sheen on the bank of the Columbia River near the site of an oil train derailment and spill in Mosier, Oregon, the day prior. AMELIA TEMPLETON
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      NTSB announces Roundtable Discussion : A Dialogue on What’s Next in Rail Tank Car Safety

      Repost from National Transportation Safety Board

      Roundtable Discussion : A Dialogue on What’s Next in Rail Tank Car Safety

      NTSB Conference Center
      429 L’Enfant Plaza, SW, Washington, DC
      7/13/2016 9:00 AM
      Press Release 6/29/2016 

      NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt to host a Rail Tank Car Safety Roundtable Discussion: A Dialogue on What’s Next in Rail Tank Car Safety

      Among the provisions of the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) are new requirements for improved railroad operating practices, more effective emergency responses, and safer and stronger tank cars. While tank car fleet owners must decide whether to replace or retrofit legacy DOT-111 and CPC-1232 tank cars over the next 13-years, we continue to investigate serious accidents with flammable liquids releases and fires.

      NTSB Most Wanted List graphic for Implement PTCRail tank car safety is of vital interest to the NTSB, and is on our 2016 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements. Because of our concern over tank car safety, we are hosting a roundtable to better understand issues facing implementation of the Fast Act requirements. We hope to gain deeper understanding of the logistics of replacing the existing tank car fleet to transport flammable materials, as well as how government and industry can overcome factors that could impede timely implementation of the new tank car rules.

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        Tougher Tank Cars Too Slow in Coming: NTSB’s Sumwalt

        Repost from OH&S Occupational Health & Safety Online

        Tougher Tank Cars Too Slow in Coming: NTSB’s Sumwalt

        "A year after the Mount Carbon crude oil train fire, residents there know that they narrowly escaped their town becoming the American Lac-Mégantic – an outcome of a fiery derailment that could still happen at any moment," NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt wrote Feb. 18, 2016.
        “A year after the Mount Carbon crude oil train fire, residents there know that they narrowly escaped their town becoming the American Lac-Mégantic – an outcome of a fiery derailment that could still happen at any moment,” NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt wrote Feb. 18, 2016.
        By OH&S, Feb 22, 2016

        Two important rail safety changes for which the National Transportation Safety Board has been waiting are not yet realized, and a Feb. 18 post on NTSB’s Safety Compass blog by board member Robert L. Sumwalt calls for them to be achieved.

        The two are changing over U.S. railroads’ DOT-111 tanker cars that carry crude oil and ethanol so they meet the more stringent DOT-117 standard and implementing positive train control.

        But DOT has decided to give railroads until 2025 to convert to the DOT-117 standard (which includes tank head shields, thicker shell material for increased puncture resistance, tank jackets and thermal protection systems with reclosing high-capacity pressure relief devices, and stronger protection for bottom outlet valves and top fittings) for those cars and until 2029 for tank carrying other flammable liquids, Sumwalt wrote.

        As for positive train control, it was required to be implemented by 2015, but late last year the deadline was extended to 2018. “Some railroads have already advised the FRA they will need an extension to the extension, pushing implementation to late 2020,” Sumwalt wrote. “It takes effort and money to make changes to enhance safety, and the NTSB applauds the efforts thus far to implement PTC. But it’s time to finish the job.”

        He began the post by commenting on the Feb. 15, 2015, derailment of 27 tank cars from a 109-car crude oil unit train near Mount Carbon, W.Va. “Crude oil was released from the derailed cars and immediately ignited into a pool of fire. Emergency responders evacuated 1,100 people within a half-mile radius of the accident and allowed the fire to burn itself out,” he wrote. “All of the cars involved in the Mount Carbon accident were the enhanced DOT-111 tank cars built to the industry’s CPC-1232 standard, the best available general service tank car at the time of the accident. Yet, the fire created by two punctured tank cars resulted in 13 adjacent tank cars becoming breached when heat exposure weakened their shells, which were not equipped with thermal protection systems.”

        Sumwalt listed several other derailments in the United States that involved the release of flammable materials and post-accident fires, and he cited the terrible example of the derailment of a train hauling Bakken crude oil in Lac–Mégantic, Quebec, in July 2013, killing 47 people.

        NTSB would have preferred a more aggressive DOT-117 implementation schedule and awaits concerted efforts by the railroads to upgrade their existing DOT-111 tank cars in flammable liquids service to the new DOT-117 standard or relegate them to carrying less dangerous cargo, he added.

        “A year after the Mount Carbon crude oil train fire, residents there know that they narrowly escaped their town becoming the American Lac-Mégantic – an outcome of a fiery derailment that could still happen at any moment,” he wrote.

         

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