The train’s emergency brakes triggered unexpectedly, according to railroad union leaders, indicating bad track or equipment failure could be to blame. The crew looked back and saw smoke — the beginnings of a fire that would burn for much of the night.
Union Pacific’s investigation later determined track was in fact the cause— multiple fasteners connecting the rail line to the ties had failed, allowing the track’s gauge to widen and derail the train. It spilled 42,000 gallons in Mosier, Oregon, prompting an evacuation order.
Derailments have been on the decline over the past few decades. The railroad industry says over 99 percent of its hazardous material shipments reach their destination safely. But that margin of error has included several fiery oil train crashes.
Not all hazardous shipments are the same: regulators and railroaders say they are learning mile-long crude oil trains are difficult to handle and put a burden on tracks other freight does not.
“In the slowing down and speeding up, you will have a sloshing of the oil,” said Jason Lewis, a policy advisor for the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, which oversees railroads in the state.
“That does put more pressure and strain on the track than what we’ve seen before. So we’re more aware of potential risks because of that,” Lewis said.
Track problems are the leading cause of derailments and have caused the majority of oil train wrecks. But in all the calls for increased safety and federal action on crude by rail that have echoed in the days following the crash in Mosier, little of the focus has been given to what can be done to improve track maintenance to prevent derailments.
OPB’s coverage on the transportation of oil by rail in the Northwest.
State and federal records show fewer than 5 percent of all defects flagged by inspectors result in violation findings. Safety experts say standard fines for those violations are too low to be effective. Records show they are routinely negotiated down to lesser amounts.
Federal officials are being urged to finalize oil train rules that phase out flawed tank car models, require better braking systems, and put new requirements on train routes, speed and notice to local governments. Lawmakers from the Northwest have introduced bills aimed at speeding the phase-out of those flawed tank cars, as well as reducing the volatility of oil moved, increasing fines for hazardous material violations and providing better training and information for first responders along oil train routes.
None of those rules focus on improved track conditions, but federal and state regulators are quietly trying to ramp up inspections for crude oil routes.
“The thinking behind that was if you’re going to have a major incident with an oil train, because of the size and the weight of those, you’re going to have an incident that involves track,” said Hal Gard, rail administrator for the Oregon Department of Transportation.
Some attempts have been made to mitigate oil train damage through using stronger tank cars and making the oil less volatile. But these measures have proven insufficient to prevent spills and fires. In Mosier, for instance, the tank cars involved were not the notorious DOT-111 models, but a sturdier version with more shielding. The oil also met a new conditioning standard in North Dakota meant to make it less volatile.
“There were no intervening obstacles. The oil was not as volatile as some forms of oil, the tank cars had been upgraded, you name it. But still, it derailed and exploded,” said Eric de Place, policy director for the Sightline Institute. The Seattle-based think tank has produced several reports critical of the transportation of oil and other fossil fuels through the Northwest.
“The industry simply cannot operate these trains in a safe manner,” he said.
Questions about inspections
Thomas Frederick, a longtime railroad engineer in Seattle, said trains with 100 or more cars of exclusively crude oil can be harder to handle than a train carrying mixed freight.
Railroaders are used to hazardous materials, he said, but the most cars he ever handled of other hazardous materials, such as chlorine gas, was 10 or 15 — not a mile-long trainload. An oil train is heavy, and the cars slosh with any curves or flaws in the tracks.
When 100 cars of flammable crude oil are rolling by, any defects in the track become higher stakes.
“I’ve pointed out several locations where the track is pretty rough and I’ve put it on our safety hotline and it just kind of gets swept under the rug,” Frederick said.
Frederick’s claim of defects going unaddressed is not a rare one, according to surveys done by a labor union and government regulators.
In them, railroad track inspectors describe feeling rushed to complete inspections.
In one survey done by the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, 30 percent of inspectors reported railroad management had pressured them not to report defects. Additionally, 35 percent reported railroad management had, without making any repairs, overruled their orders to reduce speed or close lines temporarily.
“The track inspectors are, basically, in the hot seat,” said Rick Inclima, safety director for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, representing track inspectors.
“They have a very high level of responsibility to the public and to the railroad. But they are pressured by their superior officers. Their interest up at the top is to run trains and run them fast,” Inclima said.
Inclima said oil trains should be allowed to travel only on track that meets the highest maintenance standards and required to travel at a slower speed than trains carrying other types of freight.
High costs for maintaining rail infrastructure
Russ Quimby, a rail consultant and former investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, believes railroads are among the safest modes for hauling crude oil.
“They do as much as they can to try and prevent track-related accidents,” he said, adding that the idea of zero derailments is “like saying we’re going to sell you a car that’s never going to break down.”
Railroads cite the millions of dollars they spend on infrastructure as an indication of their commitment to safety.
Two days before the Columbia Gorge derailment, Union Pacific Railroad announced plans to spend $34 million on infrastructure in Oregon, adding to a total of $193 million since 2011.
“That includes new rail, bridge inspections, everything. With safety being a priority, we’re constantly investing in our infrastructure to ensure it’s as safe as possible,” Union Pacific spokesman Justin Jacobs said.
George Gavalla, a rail consultant and former safety administrator for the Federal Railroad Administration who has spent four decades in the industry, said such numbers should be viewed more as a necessary business expense than a testament to safety.
“If you’ve got tens of thousands of miles of track, that’s normal. That’s normal maintenance,” Gavalla said.
Railroads inspect their own track much more frequently, sometimes in excess of federal standards. Union Pacific has 23 inspectors in Oregon and Washington.
But inspections can miss dangerous defects, like the failing bolts in Mosier that eluded Union Pacific inspectors as recently as four days before the derailment.
Before Mosier, the railroad visually inspected track twice a week. It ran automated inspections to detect internal rail defects only once every several months. The test that could have caught the defect in Mosier was done less than once a year. After the derailment, the railroad announced increased inspections along that route.
A push for better oversight
After Mosier, state and federal regulators announced plans to inspect oil train routes in the Columbia River Gorge.
Since oil began moving on the rails a few years ago, regulators at the state and federal levels have tried to increase their oversight of track safety. Washington and Oregon both hired new inspectors. The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission identified known oil train routes with a history of derailments, so it can focus on high-risk areas.
The Federal Railroad Administration launched a new inspection program in 2015 for known crude oil routes, in which it sends dozens of additional inspectors to focus on track conditions in a specific region during a two-week span.
In response to one oil train crash, the agency also issued a safety advisory urging railroads to conduct closer inspections of their own and provide their inspectors with better training. It is also considering standards for when rail becomes too worn and needs to be replaced.
But overall, enforcement of track safety remains light.
The FRA has over 350 inspectors across the U.S. including 50 in the Pacific Northwest. The agency said that is its highest total ever. But that total is only few more people than the 347 the agency had in 2013, when it estimated its inspectors observed only 1 percent of railroads’ operations.
Oregon has three track inspectors, with a goal of seeing every mile of track in the state at least once per year.
Over the past three years, the Oregon Department of Transportation inspectors flagged 6,441 defects in 5,089 miles of track inspected. Of those, 22 were recommended to the FRA for violations and civil penalties, as the state agency cannot issue fines.
“Defects range from something pretty minor that can be corrected on the spot. Or they can be pretty major that will require follow-up inspections and can, if it’s not attended to, turn into a violation,” said Gard, Oregon’s rail administrator.
In that same time span, federal inspectors found more than 780,000 defects across the country during railroad inspections, including track. About 23,000 — or 3 percent — were recommended for violations.
“If you want to write a higher percentage of fines, you’re going to be doing a lot more time doing paperwork,” said Gavalla, the former FRA safety administrator. “If you want to see 75-80 percent defects to fines, and you still want significant time in the field, you’re going to need a big increase in the number of inspectors in the agency.”
Gavalla and others in the rail industry say civil penalties issued by the FRA are not a deterrent for safety violations and amount to the cost of doing business for the country’s large railroads.
In 2008, Congress capped the amount the FRA could fine railroads for a single violation at $25,000. In 2014, Union Pacific reported a net profit over $5 billion.
Last year, the FRA issued $21 million in fines. After settlements, railroads collectively paid $15 million of that.
That recovery rate was a result of stepped-up enforcement this past year. The FRA had never before recovered that much of its original fines.
“They’re so far out of kilter of what they were 50 years ago, it just doesn’t have the same impact that it used to,” Gavalla said about federal fines for railroads. “Whether they collect a fine or not of a few thousand dollars, I personally felt that FRA’s ability to fine doesn’t make all that much difference.”