Oil Trains In The Northwest

New Report: Union Pacific Failed To Maintain Track, Resulting In Oil Train Derailment

By Conrad Wilson (OPB)
June 23, 2016 3 p.m.

Related: Oil Train Derailment: Q&A With Federal Railroad Administration Head

A new report from the Federal Railroad Administration released Thursday said Union Pacific is solely responsible for an oil train derailment earlier this month in the Columbia River Gorge.


The federal rail agency said in its preliminary findings that the derailment was caused by broken lag bolts that the railroad failed to maintain, which led to a widened track that caused the 16-car derailment.

“When it comes down to it, it’s Union Pacific’s failure to maintain its track led to this incident," said Sarah Feinberg, who heads up the Federal Rail Administration.

The derailment caused a fire that burned for 14 hours, the FRA’s report said. It also closed Interstate 84, forced the evacuation of about 100 people in Mosier and left a small oil sheen on the Columbia River.

"Technically, the cause of the derailment, as we found it, was these broken bolts, which led to loosened tie plates, which leads to a wide gauge in the track, which leads to the derailment," Feinberg told OPB's All Things Considered.

Union Pacific said its rail fastening system has historically been safe.

"Since the June 3 derailment in Mosier, we are enhancing our regular inspection process," Union Pacific spokesman Justin Jacobs said in a statement. "As part of our ongoing track renewal program, lag bolts with this fastener system are being replaced with rail spikes, which provide higher levels of fault detectability in standard inspection processes."

The tracks were inspected by Oregon and Union Pacific officials about five weeks before the derailment to make sure they were safe to carry crude oil trains. But the safety inspections failed to show there were any problems. A spokesman for the FRA said Union Pacific is required to inspect its tracks twice per week.*

That prompted the Oregon Department of Transportation and Oregon’s Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden to ask the FRA to place a moratorium on oil trains traveling through the Columbia River Gorge.

Related: Union Pacific To Restart Running Oil Trains Through Columbia Gorge

In a letter sent Wednesday to Feinberg, Merkley and Wyden asked for a moratorium “until the FRA has issued a final investigative report for the Mosier accident, and has ensured all steps have been taken to prevent similar accidents from occurring in the future."

Speaking on OPB's Morning Edition on Thursday, Merkley said he doubted the report would go into the level of detail needed to prevent future derailments.


"We have had a substantial oil train derailment every five months or so," Merkely said. "They're continuous, they're extremely dangerous, and we're not treating them with the seriousness that they deserve."

Feinberg told OPB on Thursday that it would be unlikely for the agency to implement a moratorium on oil trains moving through the gorge.

"A moratorium on crude trains sounds like it basically means a conversation needs to be had at the national level about the way we're supplying energy to the country," Feinberg said. "Our job as the Federal Railroad Administration is to make sure that anything that's moving is safe."

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said the FRA's report into the derailment in Mosier calls attention to serious safety concerns and improved track inspections.

"I expect the final investigation report to be completed quickly and again call on rail operators to halt oil trains in Oregon until the strongest safety measures are put in place by federal authorities to protect Oregonians," Brown said in a statement.

Bryan Hockaday, a spokesman for Brown, said state officials are actively pursing all avenues to implement the moratorium as well as better track inspections. That could include filing a lawsuit against the FRA or Union Pacific.

“We are considering all options, including litigation; however, it’s too early to speculate who might receive a lawsuit or what the substance of that lawsuit might be,” Hockaday said.

In its report on the Mosier derailment, the FRA said track issues, such as broken lag bolts, are more easily detected during walking inspections.

The agency’s report also said if the train had been equipped with an electronic braking system it could’ve shortened the stopping distance and caused fewer cars to derail.

Feinberg said the federal government has recommended -- and will soon require -- that trains hauling crude oil use electronically controlled brakes.

"The braking system that Union Pacific is using is an air brake system," Feinberg said. "It's basically a Civil War-era braking system."

But Union Pacific disagreed with that assessment.

"The train involved in the Mosier accident was equipped with distributed power, which has a braking capacity nearly identical to [electronically controlled brakes]," Union Pacific's Jacobs said in a statement.  "We do not believe [electronic] brakes would have resulted in fewer rail cars derailing."

*State officials have said the tracks were inspected on April 27, five weeks before the June 3 derailment. After this article was published, the Federal Railroad Administration noted Union Pacific is required to inspect its tracks twice per week.