Day before Mosier, inspection found ‘very serious’ problems with Union Pacific

Repost from / The Oregonian

Day before Mosier, inspection found ‘very serious’ problems with Union Pacific

By Rob Davis, June 10, 2016 at 9:21 PM
The Oregon Department of Transportation shared this photo from a bridge over the Union Pacific tracks near Mosier, taken around 4 p.m. on Saturday. Steve Suo | The Oregonian/OregonLive

After Union Pacific’s fiery oil train derailment in Mosier last week, the railroad company repeatedly emphasized its record and commitment to safety. But federal records and newly released inspections from the Oregon Department of Transportation raise serious questions about the company’s claims.

No railroad in the country has paid more in penalties in the last two years than Union Pacific, which federal regulators fined more than $7 million in 2014-2015. And state inspections conducted just a day before the derailment found repeat safety violations that Oregon’s top rail official said were “absolutely” concerning.

The inspections obtained Friday by The Oregonian/OregonLive show Union Pacific conductors left their locomotives unattended without brakes set at least 11 times in April, May and June at two yards in Portland.

Though Union Pacific management was notified about each violation, the problem persists, the records showed.

The lapses could have allowed a runaway train, a safety expert said.

It’s the train equivalent of leaving your car sitting in neutral instead of putting it in park with the emergency brake on, said Michael Eyer, a retired state rail safety inspector.

On flat ground, that’s fine, Eyer said. But even the slightest grade can lead to a runaway train – a particular concern for oil trains. A runaway train hauling oil crashed and derailed in Lac Megantic, Quebec, in July 2013, killing 47 people and destroying part of the small town.

“If we’re on an incline, which most track has, it can be imperceptible that you have movement,” Eyer said. “They can start rolling. It’s very serious. You just can’t do that.”

The problems discovered in the state inspections don’t appear related to the cause of the June 3 oil train accident in Mosier. Union Pacific has said a preliminary investigation found the derailment was caused by a track defect – a fastener that held a railroad tie to the rail.

Hal Gard, the Oregon Department of Transportation’s rail administrator, said the state targeted Union Pacific’s yards because “there had been a history of violations that we thought were concerning” in Oregon.

He said inspectors repeatedly visited the yards – under the Fremont Bridge along the Willamette River and near the St. Johns Bridge – to send a message.

“That was intensive and intentional to get attention and make a point that something’s going on here and the program needs to be tightened up,” Gard said.

At least two of the locomotives were connected to other cars when engineers left them. The inspections don’t specify what the cargo was.

Inspectors also found cars unattended without brakes on three times in Portland, The Dalles and Springfield. The violation in The Dalles, in April, noted 30 cars without the brakes properly engaged.

Reached late Friday, Justin Jacobs, a Union Pacific spokesman, said he was unfamiliar with the inspection results.

“Our safety record is very good and we stand by it,” Jacobs said. “We take that obligation very seriously and we commit that to our customers and the communities in which we serve.”

The state’s rail inspection program, expanded in 2014 by former Gov. John Kitzhaber after the increase in oil train traffic statewide, found other recurring problems with Union Pacific’s operations throughout Oregon. The company moved 6,937 tank carloads of oil along the Columbia River and through the Interstate 5 corridor last year.

At least four times since September 2015, inspectors have found Union Pacific’s switches unlocked – in Nyssa, The Dalles and Portland. That would allow a person walking past to simply pull a lever to route a train onto a side track, Eyer said.

“Someone could throw a switch and derail the whole train. That is a very serious issue,” Eyer said. “A train coming along would find itself at 40 mph suddenly running out of track or running into a parked train.”

Though the Oregon Department of Transportation conducted the inspections, the agency doesn’t levy fines. The violations are sent to the Federal Railroad Agency for enforcement. That is the agency that penalized Union Pacific $7 million in the last two years for safety violations nationwide.