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Railroad agency details new rail track standards

In February, a CSX train carrying more than 100 tankers of crude oil derailed in a snowstorm near Mount Carbon, W.Va., sending a fireball into the sky and threatening the water supply.
In February, a CSX train carrying more than 100 tankers of crude oil derailed in a snowstorm near Mount Carbon, W.Va., sending a fireball into the sky and threatening the water supply. The Associated Press

Federal authorities detailed new rail track standards Friday after finding that a broken rail caused an oil train to derail this year in West Virginia.

The finding highlighted a main cause of oil train accidents, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, which concluded an eight-month investigation into the derailment of a CSX train near Mount Carbon.

Several weeks before the February accident, rail inspectors for CSX detected internal rail flaws on two separate instances but did not take action in both cases, according to the investigation.

Federal regulators have stepped up their oversight of the railroad industry during a surge in the transportation of crude oil by train in recent years, which has also brought multiple accidents and spills.

Authorities have established new rules to build more robust tank cars for crude oil, imposed lower speed limits and mandated the use of electronically controlled brakes, which can stop trains faster over shorter distances. But the investigation into the West Virginia derailment underscored an aspect that had not yet attracted broad attention. Broken tracks account for about a third of all railroad accidents.

As a result of its findings, the railroad agency will issue a safety advisory requesting that railroads conduct closer and more detailed inspections and adopt stronger training for operators of rail inspection vehicles.

In addition, the agency plans to use its rule-making authority to draft new rail wear standards that would require railroads to slow down trains or replace a rail that poses a safety risk.

In West Virginia, 20 of the 27 tank cars that derailed were breached and spilled more than 378,000 gallons of oil. A fire burned four days and forced the evacuation of about 1,100 residents. CSX and the contractor that performed the inspection, Sperry Rail Services, were each fined $25,000, the maximum civil penalty for such a violation.

“What this broken rail incident shows us is that we need to insert ourselves and put some pretty high standards in place. It’s important to remind folks that the rail and track issues are important too,” said Sarah Feinberg, the agency’s acting administrator. “We have a zero tolerance policy on crude routes because the stakes are so high for the communities that live along those tracks.”

Railroads own their tracks and are responsible for their maintenance and regular inspection. Feinberg said the agency had asked the railroad industry and other stakeholders in 2012 to come up with recommendations about setting new standards to address track safety but had failed to reach a consensus on the issue.

Since then, Feinberg said, she has repeatedly made the case that track safety is an issue that needs to be addressed.

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