A pair of train derailments in 2012 that killed two people in Maryland and triggered a fiery explosion in Ohio exposed a little-known and unsettling truth about railroads in the U.S. and Canada: No rules govern when rail becomes too worn down to be used for hauling hazardous chemicals, thousands of tons of freight or myriad other products on almost 170,000 miles of track.
U.S. transportation officials moved to establish universal standards for when such steel gets replaced, but resistance from major freight railroads killed that bid, according to Associated Press interviews with U.S. and Canadian transportation officials, industry representatives and safety investigators.
Now, following yet another major accident linked to worn-out rails – 27 tanker cars carrying crude oil that derailed and exploded in West Virginia earlier this year – regulators are reviving the prospect of new rules for worn rails and vowing they won’t allow the industry to sideline their efforts.
“We try to look at absolutely every place where we can affect and improve safety,” Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg said. “Track generally is the place that we’re focusing at the moment, and it’s clearly overdue.”
An official announcement on the agency’s intentions to revisit rail wear is expected by the end of the year.
In the meantime, federal regulators haven’t taken the positive steps they need to, said Ronald Goldman, an attorney for the families of the two 19-year-old women who died in a 2012 derailment outside Baltimore.
“It’s a lack of will, not a lack of ability, in my opinion,” he said.
Industry supporters note a long-term decline in accidents that has reduced the frequency of derailments by more than 40 percent since 2000.
All sides agree it’s difficult to pinpoint how many accidents are tied to worn rail. Since 2000, U.S. officials blamed rail wear as the direct cause of 111 derailments causing $11 million in damage.
Two accident causes in particular have the strongest correlation with worn-out rails: “detail fractures” that result from fatigued metal, and “vertical splits” in the head of the rail, where it makes contact with a train’s wheels, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
Those problems caused a combined 1,200 derailments with $300 million in damages, three deaths and 29 people injured in the U.S. between 2000 and the present, according to accident records reviewed by the AP.
Following two massive derailments in 2012, federal regulators asked the Rail Safety Advisory Committee, a panel created by the Railroad Administration to include the industry and others in fashioning safety rules, to craft new standards to reduce the risks of worn-down rail. The committee set up a 116-person working group – made up of industry representatives, government officials, consultants, researchers and railroad worker unions – to tackle the problem.
The group included 55 representatives from the major freight railroads and their industry organization, the Association of American Railroads. The Railroad Administration had 14 seats at the table, and their counterparts from Transport Canada had five.
Following several meetings in 2012 and 2013, the group – which required consensus before recommending action – agreed on voluntary guidance for companies to manage rail wear, but no new regulations.
“There was certainly a lot of pushback and a lot of political pressure put on FRA not to adopt regulations for rail wear,” said Richard Inclima, director of safety for the union that represents track inspectors and a member of the working group. “Rail wear limits were on the table. The industry raised a lot of arguments against rail wear limits.”
The railroads’ opposition was confirmed by others involved with the group’s work.
Association of American Railroads spokesman Ed Greenberg said the railroads were “unaware of any science-based data supporting rail wear limits.”
Greenberg said the industry takes an aggressive approach to identifying and removing defective or worn sections of rail.
“Each railroad has its distinct operating environment and operating conditions that would be factored into this,” Greenberg said. He added that the industry was now interested in “renewed dialogue” with the FRA on the topic.
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