Tougher inspection and maintenance standards for railroad tracks could prevent dangerous derailments of trains carrying explosive crude oil, officials of the rail inspectors' union say.
Lawmakers in Congress and rail regulators have focused much of their attention on the strength of oil tank cars and the volatility of Bakken crude oil, but track flaws and train speed can also be significant factors in accidents.
"Let's see what we can do to keep the damn trains on the track," said Rick Inclima, a member of the Federal Railroad Administration's (FRA) Railroad Safety Advisory Committee and the safety director of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes.
"The solution is to prevent the derailment. When they come off the tracks, bad things happen," Inclima said in an interview.
Of 1,220 train derailments in 2014, 39 percent were caused by track flaws, according to FRA data.
Railroad companies determine the state of track inspection and maintenance, depending on how fast they want to run their trains. The more stringent the inspection and maintenance standards, the faster trains are permitted to travel.
The FRA sets the speed limits, based on track conditions.
Railroads can change the class of track (and so increase or decrease the allowable speed) whenever they choose.
For freight trains, there are five classes of track.
On Class 1 track, which requires infrequent inspections and allows more flaws such as defective ties and imperfectly aligned rails, trains are not permitted to travel faster than 10 m.p.h.
On Class 5 track, with stricter maintenance and inspection requirements, freight trains can travel up to 80 m.p.h.
Two major derailments last year involved oil trains on Class 2 tracks, with track conditions poor enough to restrict top speeds to 25 m.p.h.:
On April 30, 2014, a CSX oil train derailed in downtown Lynchburg, Va., creating a spectacular fire and oil spill that forced an evacuation of part of the city.
Less than two weeks later, on May 9, six cars on a 100-car Union Pacific oil train derailed near LaSalle, Colo., about 45 miles north of Denver, spilling oil near the South Platte River.
This year, on Feb. 16, a CSX oil train derailed and exploded near Mount Carbon, W.Va., sending flames hundreds of feet into the air and several hundred residents fleeing from their homes.
The West Virginia accident occurred on Class 4 tracks, where the train was traveling below the 50 m.p.h. speed limit as it was coming out of a speed-restricted curve.
"The key to reducing track-caused derailments is maintaining the tracks to a higher safety standard," said Freddie N. Simpson, president of the Maintenance of Way Brotherhood, the union that represents about 35,000 workers who inspect and maintain railroads.
"Unfortunately, the railroads' own statistics speak for themselves, and track-caused derailments - including those involving highly volatile crude oil - continue to be a threat to the nation."
The union is urging the FRA to require that tracks used by oil trains be maintained one track class higher, without a corresponding increase in train speed. Or, the union says, train speeds should be reduced to the speed limit of the next lowest class.
For example, oil trains would be limited to Class 2 speeds (25 m.p.h.) on tracks maintained to Class 3 standards (40 m.p.h.).
The union also is seeking requirements for faster repairs of identified defects, with lower speed limits until the fixes are made.
"The industry arrogantly claims they cannot afford to maintain the tracks to a higher safety standard," Simpson said. "My question to the nation is, Can we afford for them not to?"
Norfolk Southern spokesman David Pidgeon said safety was paramount at the railroad, but "any talk about slowing the trains down, we have some concern about that."
"Slowing down one train can affect the entire network. . . . It can have a serious impact on the delivery of other goods and services," Pidgeon said.
He said Norfolk Southern was spending about $1 billion to maintain and upgrade tracks and bridges this year.
"We don't want to be derailing. . . . We want, and our shippers want, safe, reliable infrastructure."
The Association of American Railroads, which represents major freight rail companies, noted that the industry had its safest year in 2014.
Without responding directly to the union's contentions, AAR spokesman Ed Greenberg said railroads had spent $575 billion on safety-enhancing rail infrastructure and equipment since 1980, with an additional $29 billion scheduled to be spent this year.
"The freight railroad industry shares the belief that there is no greater priority than safety," Greenberg said. "It is always our goal to make a safe network even safer, and as FRA data shows, 2014 was the safest year for train accidents in railroad history."
CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle said safety was that railroad's "highest priority, as evidenced by our extensive efforts to maintain our infrastructure, train our employees, and collaborate with first responders to make sure they're prepared to respond to train-related incidents."
Doolittle said CSX inspections on oil train routes exceeded federal standards, with visual inspections at least three times a week; track geometry inspections two to three times a year; and ultrasound inspections (used to identify internal defects in the rails) on a schedule that ranges from 31 to 123 days.
Electronic trackside monitors have been installed to search for defects in railcars, and a nationwide speed limit of 50 m.p.h. has been set for CSX oil trains, Doolittle said.
Other major railroads, including Norfolk Southern, also limit oil trains to 50 m.p.h.
On April 17, acting FRA administrator Sarah Feinberg issued an emergency order restricting trains to 40 m.p.h. in urban areas if they are transporting flammable liquids, including crude oil.
Major freight railroads had agreed last year to a similar limit, and in many cities, including Philadelphia, oil trains already travel more slowly.
The FRA has proposed other regulations to address oil train safety, including a stronger tank-car design and better braking systems. The proposal is under review at the White House, and final regulations are expected to be released next month.