Broken rail caused West Virginia train derailment

John Raby
Associated Press

Montgomery, W.Va. — A fiery oil train derailment in southern West Virginia last February resulted from a broken rail that started with a crack that should have been detected but was missed in two inspections, federal investigators said Friday.

A CSX train was carrying 3 million gallons of Bakken crude when it derailed Feb. 16 during a snowstorm in Mount Carbon. Twenty-seven of the train’s 109 cars derailed. Twenty cars leaked crude oil.

The Federal Railroad Administration said the broken rail resulted from a crack that had expanded. The problem was missed by CSX Corp. and a contractor on inspections in December 2014 and last January, said Sarah Feinberg, the FRA’s acting chief.

“This accident, like many rail accidents, was preventable,” Feinberg said at a news conference.

Rail contractors drive along the tracks in trucks equipped with technology to take EKG- or sonar-type readings, searching for potential flaws and defects as they move along. Feinberg said the contractor’s equipment picked up a potential problem during the inspections, but the operator indicated in subsequent interviews that the problem appeared to be due to surface conditions, not a flaw in the rail.

If the operator had left the vehicle to inspect the location more closely or used a hand-held device, “FRA investigators believe the rail defect could have been discovered prior to the derailment,” Feinberg said.

The rail was near the location of another broken rail discovered earlier by an FRA inspector that was repaired in May 2014.

FRA chief safety officer Bob Lauby said the sheer weight of trains likely played a role in expanding the crack in the rail. He believed weather wasn’t a factor.

CSX and the contractor have been fined $25,000 apiece for failing to verify a potential rail defect, the FRA said.

“Our country relies on the safe transportation of large quantities of energy products across the nation, and it is our responsibility to require operators to implement strict safety standards,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a news release. “FRA’s findings and action today should make it clear to rail operators that we will do exactly that.”

The derailment shot fireballs into the sky, burned down a nearby house and caused fires on the ground that smoldered for days.

The owner of the destroyed home was treated for inhalation injuries. No one else in the area was hurt.

The FRA said it will issue an advisory urging more detailed inspections where defects and flaws are suspected. It also will seek advanced training for rail inspection vehicle operators.

“There is a huge amount of track in this country,” Feinberg said. “Where we see a need for action in order to increase safety, we will not hesitate to take it. It is increasingly clear that as limits are pushed on rail wear, there is cause for concern and need for action.”

The administration also will look into the need for rail wear standards and possibly requiring railroads to slow trains or replace rails where certain conditions pose safety risks.

Speed had previously been ruled out as a factor. The FRA has said the train was going 33 mph at the time of the crash. The speed limit was 50 mph.

The derailment occurred about a mile outside the small college town of Montgomery while school was in session.

Oil from the tank cars left a sludge deposit in the Kanawha River and an adjoining creek, and a sheen along the shorelines, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Two water treatment plants downstream closed their intakes temporarily after the derailment and customers were asked to conserve water.

Under a March consent order with the EPA, the railroad agreed to a long-term plan for cleaning up and restoring the area around the derailment. CSX has said more than 181,000 gallons of crude oil was recovered after the accident and thousands of tons of soil has been removed and shipped for disposal.

The train was bound for Yorktown, Virginia. In recent years, trains hauling crude from the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana have been involved in fiery derailments in six states.

A lawsuit was filed in September against CSX on behalf of more than 200 residents of Fayette County.