CSX equipment detected rail defect a day before Lynchburg derailment

Posted at 9:57 PM, Jun 04, 2014

RICHMOND, Va. — A state agency spokesman confirmed that a CSX inspection of railroad track in Lynchburg found some type of irregularity on the rail the day before 17 cars jumped the track on April 30, triggering an oil fire and evacuating hundreds of people.

Three of the CSX cars carrying Bakken crude from North Dakota plunged into the James River and one caught fire. Up to 30,000 gallons of crude spilled into the James River.

On Tuesday the new Rail Safety & Security Task Force met, a committee established by Gov. Terry McAuliffe after the derailment in Lynchburg’s downtown area.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Massoud Tahamtani, director of the State Corporation Commission Division of Utility and Railroad Safety, informed the task force that CSX had found the defect, first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch and confirmed by the SCC spokesman Ken Schrad.

“We don’t know if it is associated with the derailment,” Schrad said. “That doesn’t mean it was a safety violation.”

Schrad explained that CSX uses a device that travels along the railways at about 25-30 mph and takes laser measurements of the track.

It can identify such things like wear and tear, Schrad said, and usually it identifies things that people have to go out and check. One unit registered by the device is the equivalent of a mile.

Schrad said they do not know the exact location of the defect at this time, and may not have been at the precise location where the train derailed, though it would have been in Lynchburg and somewhere along the path traveled by the 105 tank cars hauling the Bakken crude.

Schrad said that railroads have 30 days to correct defects found during the procedure, and he does not know if anyone had been dispatched to check the irregularity when it was spotted.

“They have every incentive to operate a safe track,” Schrad said, as he reiterated that a “defect is not necessarily a safety violation.”

Both the SCC and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) inspect Virginia railroad tracks, and have two inspectors each, although the SCC was not previously responsible for the part of the track where the recent accident occurred.

The state agency approached the FRA for increased responsibility to inspect the entire line, from the entry point in West Virginia all the way to Yorktown. Previously the SCC was responsible for the section of track south of Richmond, all the way to Yorktown.

“They have ultimate responsibility,” Schrad said, of CSX.  Now, instead of a 45-60 day cycle the railways are being inspected on a 30-day cycle, Schrad said.  “This line now has an increased amount of traffic and material being transported.”

National Transportation Safety Board investigator Jim Southworth said in early May that  investigators may not release any conclusions for more than a year.

“This will be a well-orchestrated industrial ballet,” he said.

The condition of the track, which is being reassembled, along with its bed after heavy rains will be one of the many things they will examine, said NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway.

U.S. regulators issued a safety advisory after the incident, urging freight railroads to avoid using older tank cars when hauling highly volatile crude oil when possible.

The amount of oil shipped by rail has increased fourfold since 2005 amid a drilling boom in North Dakota and Canada. Those shipments have been under scrutiny since the derailment and fire that killed 47 people in a small town in Quebec last July, and environmentalists warned against having trains haul oil through downtown Lynchburg in March.

Some of the cars on the train were of a model that the NTSB has said has a high incidence of leaking during crashes. But Southworth said investigators don’t know whether any of the cars that derailed Wednesday were among them.

The Association of American Railroads estimates that more than 90,000 of those cars are used to carry hazardous materials. About 14,000 of them have been built to the latest safety standards, the association says.

Four to six trains a week pass through Richmond carrying a particularly combustible form of oil.  If some of those train cars were to fall of the tracks in Richmond, fire officials said the results could be devastating.

Fire officials describe the “worst case scenario” for this situation as involving 33 train cars derailing in Shockoe Bottom. If that were to happen during peak business hours, the impact could stretch to a half mile radius encompassing hundreds of thousands of people.

For that very reason, there are currently discussions with the railroad company and government officials about possibly rerouting the trains that carry the volatile oil around Richmond.

The railroad company inspects the tracks twice a week to help prevent derailment, Deputy Fire Marshall and Hazmat Coordinator Captain Darl Jewell with the Richmond Fire Department.

***CNN Wire contributed to this report***