West Virginia train derailment puts focus on rail safety

WASHINGTON — The train that derailed in West Virginia on Monday, sending fireballs into the sky and oil into a local waterway, was heaving North Dakota crude in newer-model tank cars designed to be more resilient in crashes.

For years, regulators, local governments and oil-train critics have focused their scrutiny on older, weaker tank cars that carry that crude, urging thicker hulls, insulating jackets, and head shields to make them less likely to puncture in an accident.

But the fiery derailment near Mount Carbon, W.V., shines a spotlight on other steps that oil industry leaders say are necessary to make it safer to transport crude by rail, including automated braking systems and better track maintenance.

Strengthening tank cars is “focusing only on part of the problem,” said Brigham McCown, the former head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

“The issue is keeping trains from derailing” in the first place, said McCown, “because if a train doesn’t come off the tracks, we don’t have to worry about how robust and resilient the package is.”

Federal regulators at PHMSA last July proposed phasing out old DOT-111 tank cars for shipping flammable liquids, in favor of newer models build to enhanced tank car standards, which could include 9/16-inch thick steel, electronically controlled pneumatic brakes and rollover protection.

The agency also proposed speed limits on high-hazard flammable trains that carry 20 or more tank carloads of flammable liquids, including crude and ethanol.

Read more: Transportation Department unveils proposed oil train rules

But a final rule is not likely to be imposed until May, and it could take years to retrofit and phase out old models.

Without waiting for new government dictates, oil shippers and railroads made voluntary changes to tank cars produced since 2011; they are known as the CPC-1232 models.

All of the oil cars on the train that derailed in West Virginia were CPC-1232s, CSX Corp. confirmed in a statement. The train was traveling from North Dakota to an oil hub in Yorktown, Va.

The resulting explosion shot fireballs into the sky, destroyed one house and injured one person who was treated for possible respiratory problems. Local water utilities took precautions after oil was found in a creek running parallel to the CSX tracks and testing was under way in the Kanawha River.

The derailment is just the latest in a series of rail accidents highlighting the risks of transporting crude, and came just two days after another in Ontario, Canada that ignited seven rail cars.

Many of the incidents have been traced back to weather conditions, and heavy snow in Mount Carbon may have been a factor in Monday’s accident.

For instance, a May 2014 accident in Lynchburg, Va. — which sent train cars also bound for Yorktown into the James River — followed heavy rain. Trains had been ordered to slow down on areas of the track, where mud was known to mix in with the rocky ballast supporting tracks.

The American Petroleum Institute has argued for a holistic approach to rail safety that goes beyond a strict focus on resilient tank cars. In a statement Tuesday, API spokesman Brian Straessle stressed that North America’s rail network moves 99.998 percent of hazardous materials without incident.

“Even one incident is too many, so we are working with regulators and the railroads to enhance safety through a comprehensive approach to accident prevention, mitigation and response,” Straessle said. Upgrades to the tank car fleet are one element of the mitigation effort.”

But, he added, “since there are limits to what tank car design can achieve, reaching our goal of zero incidents will take an equal effort to prevent accidents and enhance emergency response.”

McCown noted it’s probably impossible “to make an impervious tank car.”

“We have to get at the root cause of the derailment,” he said. “The industry, the shippers and the railroads need to get together and figure out what causes trains to leave the tracks and stop it.”

Some options include using electronically controlled brakes that can instantly be triggered on an entire line of cars — rather than air brakes that engage sequentially on rail cars, one after another. Supporters say the braking technology would more swiftly bring trains to a stop when an obstacle or other problem is identified on the track ahead.

Others have recommended stepping up train inspections — possibly conducting surveys right before a unit train of oil cars passes through — and greater attention to track designs, including wood ties and the way rails are bolted down.

That scrutiny could come from Congress, where lawmakers are increasingly involved in the issue — responding to constituents worried about climbing crude-by-rail traffic.

Kevin Book, managing director of ClearView Energy Partners, predicted “growing congressional concern regarding crude by rail, even in the absence of another tragic accident.”

In part, he said, in a research note to clients, that’s because the public attention is trained on energy infrastructure and because the number of incidents involving crude by rail has climbed.

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