Inspectors find thousands of defects
Nearly 24,000 safety problems found in trains that transport crude oil
BILLINGS, MONT. | Government inspections of railroads that haul volatile crude oil across the United States have uncovered almost 24,000 safety defects, including problems similar to those blamed in derailments that triggered massive fires or oil spills in Oregon, Virginia, Montana and elsewhere, according to data obtained by The Associated Press.
The safety defects were discovered during targeted federal inspections on almost 58,000 miles of oil train routes in 44 states. The inspection program began two years ago following a string of oil train accidents across North America, including a 2013 derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people.
Federal regulators said the inspections resulted in 1,118 violation recommendations, prompting railroads to become more responsive to concerns raised by track inspectors and to improve safety.
Problems identified by federal inspectors included worn rails and other equipment; bolts meant to hold tracks in place that were broken, loosened or missing; and cracks in steel bars joining sections of track. They also noted failures by railroads to quickly fix problems identified through inspections.
Such issues are not uncommon across the nation’s 140,000-mile freight rail network. But they have received heightened attention after rail shipments of crude oil increased and the number of major derailments spiked following a surge in domestic energy production.
A violation recommendation occurs when an inspector finds something serious enough to warrant a potential penalty, or a railroad fails to address a defect that’s been found. Federal officials declined to say how many penalties had been issued under the crude-by-rail inspection program.
A former senior official at the Federal Railroad Administration, Steven Ditmeyer, reviewed the inspection data obtained by the AP. He said it reinforces the need for railroads to stay on top of regular maintenance for their sprawling networks of track.
Many of the defects found by inspectors posed serious safety issues, Mr. Ditmeyer said, adding that it can be difficult for railroads to know when a seemingly small problem will result in a derailment.
“All of this is a call for continued vigilance,” said Mr. Ditmeyer, who directed the railroad administration’s Office of Research and Development for eight years. “One defect or one violation of the right kind can cause a derailment. These statistics give a good indication of the track quality, but most (defects) won’t cause a derailment.”
Some safety gaps found by inspectors bear similarities to the circumstances surrounding prior accidents.
In Lynchburg, Virginia, cracks in the track that went unrepaired led to a CSX Transportation oil train coming off the rails and exploding along the James River in 2014.
In Culbertson, Montana, a 2015 accident that spilled 27,000 gallons of oil from a BNSF Railway train was blamed on defective or missing fasteners used to hold the tracks in place.
Survey crews in boats look over tanker cars as workers remove damaged tanker cars along the tracks where several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along the James River. Many of the defects were similar to problems blamed in past derailments that caused massive fires or oil spills.