Re­port urges changes on rails

Train­ing, in­spec­tions among as­pects to be ad­dressed to pre­vent fiery crashes

The Reporter (Lansdale, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Joan Lowy

WASHINGTON » A pres­ti­gious sci­en­tific or­ga­ni­za­tion on Wednesday called for more fre­quent and bet­ter in­spec­tions of freight rail­road tracks to pre­vent po­ten­tially cat­a­strophic oil and ethanol train crashes.

A re­port by the National Academies of Sci­ences also urged bet­ter train­ing for emer­gency work­ers and ques­tioned the va­lid­ity of re­cent train speed reg­u­la­tion.

From 2005 to 2015, there were 21 de­rail­ments or col­li­sions in the U.S. of trains haul­ing crude oil,

re­sult­ing in the re­lease of 1.6 mil­lion gal­lons (6 mil­lion liters). There were 58 ethanol train crashes over the same pe­riod, re­sult­ing in the re­lease of 2.6 mil­lion gal­lons (9.8 mil­lion liters). The trains are of­ten more than 100 cars long, and spilled oil or ethanol from rup­tured tank cars has ig­nited and cre­ated gi­ant fire­balls that can last for days.

Sev­eral de­rail­ments were at­trib­uted to track prob­lems

that weren’t de­tected in in­spec­tions shortly be­fore the in­ci­dents. Fed­eral reg­u­la­tions pre­sume that in­spec­tors won’t al­ways catch all track prob­lems, but the re­port ques­tions whether there should be an ac­cept­able fail­ure rate. It sug­gests that these rates and pri­or­i­ties for track re­pair be ad­justed for routes used by trains haul­ing crude oil and ethanol.

The gov­ern­ment should en­cour­age rail­roads to make more fre­quent and com­pre­hen­sive in­spec­tions of track on routes reg­u­larly used by oil and ethanol

trains, in­clud­ing the use of ad­vances in in­spec­tion tech­nolo­gies like sen­sors, high-res­o­lu­tion imag­ing and au­ton­o­mous sys­tems, the re­port said. Some rail­roads are us­ing drones to in­crease track in­spec­tions.

De­rail­ments of all kinds reached an all-time low in 2016, said Jes­sica Ka­hanek, a spokes­woman for the As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can Rail­roads. De­rail­ments in­volv­ing crude oil ac­count for less than 1 per­cent of all de­rail­ments, she said.

Rail­roads are al­ready us­ing many of the tech­nolo­gies men­tioned in the re­port

and are do­ing ex­ten­sive re­search on ways “to make a safe net­work even safer,” Ka­hanek said.

The re­port also ques­tioned the tech­ni­cal ba­sis for a re­cent safety reg­u­la­tion that re­duced the maximum speed for oil trains to 50 mph in most ar­eas and 40 mph in ur­ban ar­eas.

Of the 20 most se­ri­ous train wrecks in which oil and ethanol were re­leased in the United States from 2005 to 2015, none of the trains were trav­el­ing faster than 50 mph and only six were trav­el­ing at 40 mph or more, the re­port said.

Some safety ad­vo­cates fa­vor a 30 mph limit. The rail­road in­dus­try op­poses the lower speed, say­ing it would cause traf­fic jams and ship­ping de­lays.

Emer­gency re­spon­ders in many of the com­mu­ni­ties tra­versed by oil and ethanol trains, es­pe­cially vol­un­teer fire de­part­ments in ru­ral ar­eas, still lack fa­mil­iar­ity with pro­ce­dures for han­dling a large-scale in­ci­dent in­volv­ing highly flammable liq­uids, the re­port said.

It rec­om­mended that emer­gency pre­pared­ness grants be used to as­sist “com­mu­ni­ties that are fac­ing new and un­fa­mil­iar risks.”

Clear guide­lines are also

lack­ing on the kinds of in­for­ma­tion rail­roads should pro­vide state and lo­cal agen­cies to pre­pare for such emer­gen­cies, the re­port said. And it’s un­clear if the in­for­ma­tion rail­roads are shar­ing with state emer­gency plan­ning agen­cies is get­ting to first re­spon­ders.

Oil and ethanol train de­rail­ments con­tinue, al­though the pace has slowed. In June, 20 cars of a 115car oil train de­railed while pass­ing through Plain­field, Illi­nois on its way to Louisiana. A tank car leaked 20,000 gal­lons of crude oil, most of which burned, fol­low­ing a col­li­sion in April be­tween two trains near Money, Mis­sis­sippi.

SCOTT MOR­GAN — FILE PHOTO, VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

On June 21, 2009, rail­road freight cars lie next to the train tracks after a fiery ex­plo­sion killed one per­son fol­low­ing a de­rail­ment June 19 in Rock­ford, Ill.

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