The authorities can do a lot more to improve the safety of moving oil by rail by looking at the tracks themselves, according to a white paper released this month by a group promoting infrastructure investments.
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure said new laws that require more robust tank cars are an important step toward better safety, but regulators, shippers and railroads need to be more aggressive to combat the leading causes of derailments, including broken rail and human error.
Brigham McCown is the chairman of the alliance and a former head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. He said the railroad industry tends to be reactive rather than anticipating a potential problem.
“Something happened, so what are we going to do to fix it?” McCown told reporters. “We focus on the accident, rather than focusing on a long-term proactive engagement of reducing the potential for accidents to begin with.”
The issue of oil shipments by rail has come to the fore due to a huge upsurge in shipments and a series of high profile fiery derailments including one in Lynchburg.
The alliance’s white paper claims that railroads and regulators can leverage technology to make existing inspection programs more efficient and effective. The existing regulations were updated in 2014. They mandate track and rail inspections. Often workers look at the physical conditions of track structures and the roadbed by foot or in a vehicle as often as once a week. Rail inspections use methods such as ultrasonic or induction testing to identify hidden internal defects. The Federal Railroad Administration also requires other investigations, including monthly inspections of switches, turnouts, track crossings and other devices.
Additionally the railroads use their own methods. “Freight railroads spend billions of dollars every year on maintaining and further modernizing the nation’s rail network, including safety-enhancing rail infrastructure and equipment,” stated Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads. “At any point during the day or night, the nation’s rail network is being inspected, maintained or being upgraded.”
Although the system appears to be rigorous, AAI reiterates a previous assertion by the National Transportation Safety Board that the effectiveness of these inspections is undermined when one worker can inspect multiple lines at the same time, as is allowed under the current system.
The AII has highlighted some technologies that could be more widely employed in the inspection of rails including:
- Track integrity sensors that can be put on rail and ballast to provide continuous monitoring. Where a deformation is found in the rail, an alarm would be activated.
- Ballast integrity sensors that provide real-time information of how the lawyers under the track are moving to help identify sink holes, washouts, buckling track, shifting earth and other problems.
- Gage restraint measurement systems that analyze rail motion to help detect faulty and weak ties and fasteners, potentially guiding inspectors to focus on specific portions of track.
The derailments have caused a series of devastating fires that place railroad workers and communities near the tracks in danger. If you have been hurt due to a derailment or defective track, call our railroad worker injury attorneys at 866-455-6657.