La. Train Derailment Highlights Need for Safety Measures

June 3, 2008

More than 3,000 residents of Lafayette, La., were evacuated May 17, 2008, when a train derailed, spilling 10,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid. The Associated Press reported that the wreck spread a toxic cloud over Lafayette, in the heart of Cajun country about 125 miles west of New Orleans.

Hydrochloric acid can cause heart and respiratory ailments. Five people, including two railroad workers, were sent to a hospital and treated after complaining of skin and eye irritation, according to state police. As of May 20, about 20 people had sought treatment for symptoms as a result of the derailment. Several lawsuits seeking class action status have been filed in state and federal courts against Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. (BNSF), the train’s operator.

Results of BNSF’s investigation into the accident were to be handed over to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), a division of the federal Department of Transportation (DOT).

National safety plan

Such accidents are what the FRA has hoped to avoid with the implementation in 2005 of a comprehensive safety plan for the nation’s railroad system. The DOT on May 14 announced that train accidents have decreased by nearly 25 percent since the 2005 launch of the National Rail Safety Action Plan.

From 2004 through 2007 there was a decline in every cause category of train accidents including the two largest causes — human factors and track flaws. They fell 27.2 percent and 13.8 percent, respectively, according to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary E. Peters. In addition, there were 10.9 percent fewer grade crossing collisions and an 8.9 percent decrease in grade crossing fatalities. The train accident rate reached a 10-year low in 2007 at 3.3 accidents per million train miles.

Railroads had 406 fewer train accidents nationwide, or a 13.7 percent reduction, in 2007 compared with 2006. California (down 46), Texas (down 45) and New York (down 30) led the way among the 34 states that experienced reductions, Peters said.

FRA Administrator Joseph H. Boardman said the agency “will now turn to developing a riskreduction strategy to further drive down the number of train accidents.” He said the new safety approach supplements existing methods of federal safety oversight and compliance enforcement.

The action plan launched in 2005 is aimed at: reducing the most frequent and highest-risk causes of train accidents; accelerating research to strengthen rail tank cars carrying the most dangerous hazardous materials; addressing the effects of fatigue on train crews; enhancing highway-rail grade crossing safety; and using data in a new way to better direct federal inspection resources to where they are needed most, according to the FRA.

Boardman announced in early April that the FRA, in an effort to increase public awareness of train accidents, is making available online reports of its investigation into major train accidents and other incidents.

“There’s no reason that anyone who’s interested shouldn’t be able to find out the probable cause of a train accident,” stated Boardman in an FRA release. He said formal accident investigation reports generally focus on high-consequence train-to-train collisions, derailments, certain highway-rail grade crossing collisions, and all railroad employee fatalities.

The FRA believes access to this information will benefit railroads, railroad employees, state and local officials, communities, shippers, insurers and others directly or indirectly impacted by these events.

There is a significant lag time between the date the accident occurs and when the report appears on the FRA Web site. A major train accident or incident investigation typically takes six to nine months to complete, and no portions of reports are made public until an investigation is finalized, the FRA said. An up-to-date listing of all active, open and ongoing investigations will be posted online, however.

If the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigates the same event, by law it assumes primary responsibility for managing the investigative process with FRA performing a concurrent supporting role. FRA does not typically release its own report about an accident until the NTSB has issued its findings.

The FRA’s accident investigation Web page can be accessed at tent/1696.

Associated Press reports contributed to this story.

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