The derailment of a train carrying highly volatile crude oil in downtown Lynchburg two years ago would not have occurred if CSX Transportation had time to carry out the recommendations of a working group on rail failure accepted two weeks before the accident, a federal safety agency has concluded.
The National Transportation Safety Board issued a report Wednesday that concludes the accident was caused by a defective rail that had been discovered the day before the derailment and was scheduled for repair the day after the accident.
But mounting concerns about microscopic rail defects in three earlier train derailments had led to formation of a working group whose recommendations had been accepted by a federal Rail Safety Advisory Committee on April 16, 2014, two weeks before 17 crude oil tanker cars derailed in downtown Lynchburg.
“Before the guidelines were implemented by CSX, the Lynchburg accident occurred,” the report states. “If they had been implemented, this accident likely would have been prevented.”
CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle said the company was evaluating the NTSB report for lessons to prevent future incidents.
“Though CSX’s rail replacement protocols exceeded federal regulations at the time of the Lynchburg derailment, we have since implemented further enhancements to reduce the time limit for replacing rail on key crude oil routes following the detection of a defect, to within 24 hours,” Doolittle said.
Three of the derailed tanker cars in Lynchburg tumbled down an embankment into the James River; one ruptured, spilling almost 30,000 gallons of crude oil that either burned in a fiery plume or went into the river. The accident caused more than $1.2 million in damage, not including the cost of environmental cleanup.
No one was killed or injured, even though the derailment occurred just before 2 p.m. on April 30, 2014, as the lunch crowd was leaving a local restaurant adjacent to the tracks in downtown Lynchburg.
The derailment resulted in the evacuation of six blocks along the riverfront, affecting about 350 residents and 20 businesses.
It also intensified federal concerns about the safety of so-called “unit trains” of more than 100 tanker cars carrying crude oil from the Bakken shale region of North Dakota to terminals and refineries. The train that derailed in Lynchburg was more than 6,400 feet long, with 104 tanker cars carrying Bakken light crude oil that federal regulators have found to be highly volatile. It was traveling to a terminal in Yorktown to be stored and eventually loaded onto barges for shipment to refineries near Philadelphia.
Another CSX crude oil train derailed in February 2015 in Mount Carbon, W.Va., on its way to the Yorktown terminal.
The oil train route passes directly through downtown Richmond and Williamsburg on its way to Yorktown, as well as Covington, Clifton Forge and Lynchburg.
The NTSB investigation of the Lynchburg accident officially determined the probable cause of the derailment as “a broken rail caused by a reverse detail fracture with evidence of rolling contact fatigue.” A reverse detail fracture is a progressive crack caused by cumulative stress that normally begins just below the rail head, the report explained.
The fracture occurred about 2½ feet from where the rail had been repaired more than three weeks before the accident, the report said. The derailment occurred at “a sudden break” of the outside rail of the track as it curved to the right along the river bank.
In the months after the derailment, an official at the State Corporation Commission revealed that CSX had found a microscopic defect in the rail on April 29, 2014, the day before the accident. The report said CSX planned to replace the rail on May 1, 2014, but never had the chance. Under the railroad company’s engineering standards, it had five days from the discovery of the defect to either replace or repair.
The Federal Railroad Administration’s track safety standards did not address rail defects of the size the CSX inspection found, but only when they reach four times the size of the defect found in the area of the Lynchburg derailment.
But the rail administration already was concerned about track safety after three previous train derailments that NTSB investigations had traced to rail defects from rolling contact fatigue, or the cumulative effect of train traffic on track rails.
In late 2012, the FRA established the rail safety advisory committee, which formed a working group on rail failure that met throughout the next year.
“The group proposed new performance-based recommendations for determining rail wear and internal rail inspection criteria,” the NTSB report said. “These criteria ensure the FRA’s ability to effectively monitor rail integrity programs that require track owners to quickly identify and remediate areas that could lead to a derailment.”
The NTSB report predicts that these guidelines “should significantly reduce rail accidents caused by broken rails resulting from rolling contact fatigue and improve the industry’s rail risk management program.”
Doolittle said, “CSX also is committed to continuously improving our ability to detect and correct rail defects before they can cause an incident.”
He said the company has “the lowest rate of derailments caused by crack defects in the industry,” but said it is working with the railroad administration to develop new inspection processes “that will enhance our ability to quickly and accurately identify rail flaws.”