Union officials say tougher inspection and maintenance standards for railroad tracks could help prevent dangerous derailments of trains carrying crude oil.
While lawmakers and regulators focus on the strength of oil tank cars and volatility of crude oil, officials of the rail inspectors’ union say track flaws and train speed can be significant factors in accidents.
The focus should be on preventing derailments, Rick Inclima, safety director of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, told The Philadelphia Inquirer.
“Let’s see what we can do to keep the damn trains on the track,” said Inclima, a member of the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee of the Federal Railroad Administration. “When they come off the tracks, bad things happen.”
Data from the railroad administration indicates that 39 percent of the 1,220 train derailments last year were caused by track flaws.
Railroad companies determine the state of track inspection and maintenance, and are allowed to run trains at higher speeds by making inspection and maintenance standards more stringent. Trains are barred from traveling faster than 10 mph on Class 1 track, which requires infrequent inspections and allows more flaws such as defective ties and imperfectly aligned rails. On Class 5 track, with stricter maintenance and inspection requirements, freight trains can travel up to 80 mph.
Freddie Simpson, president of the Maintenance of Way Brotherhood, which represents about 35,000 workers who inspect and maintain railroads, said higher safety standards are key to reducing track-caused derailments. The union wants tracks used by oil trains maintained one track class higher without an increase in speed, or train speeds reduced to that of the next lowest class, and also wants faster repairs of defects with lower speeds until they are done.
Norfolk Southern spokesman David Pidgeon said safety was paramount at the railroad, which was spending about $1 billion this year to maintain and upgrade tracks and bridges, but had concerns about “any talk about slowing the trains down.”
“Slowing down one train can affect the entire network,” Pidgeon said. “It can have a serious impact on the delivery of other goods and services.”
The Association of American Railroads, which represents major freight rail companies, noted that the industry had its safest year in 2014.
CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle said its 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 on a schedule that ranges from 31 to 123 days.
Acting FRA administrator Sarah Feinberg issued an emergency order on April 17 restricting trains to 40 mph 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 Philadelphia and other cities oil trains already travel more slowly.
The FRA has proposed other oil train safety regulations such as a stronger tank-car design and better braking systems, with final regulations expected next month.
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