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Federal regulators push for improved oil train safety measures

The aftermath of an oil train derailment near Mount Carbon, W.Va., in February.

The aftermath of an oil train derailment near Mount Carbon, W.Va., in February.

(Chris Jackson / Register-Herald)

Facing a surge of oil train crashes caused by track defects over the last three years, the Federal Railroad Administration said Friday it was taking steps to improve the condition of the rails across the nation.

Agency chief Sarah Feinberg says she wants the railroad industry to conduct more intensive on-the-ground rail inspections and would consider a new rule to establish federal standards on rail wear, a measure the industry has opposed in the past.

The measures were outlined in Mount Carbon, W.Va., site of a massive CSX derailment earlier this year that spilled 378,000 gallons of crude from North Dakota, caused the evacuation of 1,100 residents and burned down a home. The fires raged at the site for two days.

The crash was caused by a vertical crack in the railhead, a defect that CSX had missed twice in inspections in the prior months, according to an investigation report released by the agency Friday.

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An analysis published by the Times earlier this week found that 59% of oil train derailments over the last three years in the U.S. and Canada were caused by track defects, more than double the rate for all types of freight train accidents. The Times story was based on a compilation of 31 government and railroad industry accident reports.

Experts believe that the heavy weight and dynamic loads of oil trains are causing weaknesses in the rail to fail.

“It is increasingly clear that as limits are pushed on rail wear, as unit oil trains are crossing the country, there is cause for concern and need for action,” Feinberg said.

CSX voluntarily agreed to new inspection procedures, in which the results from past inspections can be compared to the real-time results from new inspections. The approach should allow track inspectors to better monitor conditions that change or worsen over time.

CSX and its inspection contractor, Sperry Rail Services, were each fined $25,000 for the Mount Carbon accident.

Feinberg also said the agency would issue a safety advisory soon that would urge closer and more detailed inspections where defects and flaws are suspected, and stronger training for rail inspection vehicle operators.

“It is very hard to find every potential defect,” Feinberg said.

The biggest potential change could be a new federal standard on railhead wear.

The rail involved in the Mount Carbon accident was installed in the early 1990s. By late last year, a long vertical crack had developed that finally caused the rail to split apart under the weight of the 107 tank cars on the CSX train, investigators found. Such cracks can result from impurities in the metal or from wear during usage, Federal Railroad Administration experts said Friday.

There is no current federal regulation on railhead wear. Railroads have internal guidelines that are based on rail age, the amount of tonnage that has crossed over the tracks and the condition of the track. Railroads normally inspect the railheads for wear and periodically grind the metal so that the shape of the railhead is maintained.

Feinberg said the rail industry had opposed any federal rules on track wear in the past, but did not elaborate.

The American Assn. of Railroads said it did not have any immediate comment on the agency’s safety measures.

“The nation’s freight rail industry shares the [Federal Railroad Administration’s] commitment to further advancing the safety of our rail system and we look forward to seeing the details of the agency’s upcoming advisory,” association spokesman Ed Greenberg said.

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

Follow @rvartabedian on Twitter


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