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NTSB, BLET urge action on buffer cars to protect train crews

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio, December 18 — The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a Safety Recommendation Report on December 15, calling out the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) for their failure to act regarding the safe placement of buffer cars on trains carrying hazardous materials. For the past several years, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) has urged the FRA to act on the issue of additional buffer cars on unit trains to help to protect operating crews in the event of a derailment.

“This is not the first time NTSB has issued recommendations regarding the use of buffer cars to reduce the risks of hazardous materials release to train crews,” said Robert Hall, NTSB Director of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials. “We believe that it is imperative that these recommendations be implemented to prevent the potential for a catastrophic event.”

The NTSB’s latest recommendation would require all trains to have a minimum of five non-placarded cars between any locomotive or occupied equipment and freight cars transporting hazardous materials, regardless of train length and consist. The recommendation stems from two separate derailments of high hazard flammable trains in Draffin, Kentucky (CSX) on February 13, 2020, and in Fort Worth, Texas (Union Pacific), on April 24, 2019, both of which resulted in breached tank cars and hazardous material fires. The NTSB is investigating both derailments.

The NTSB found that in both derailments, least-protective DOT-111 tank cars were placed in positions that increased the risk of derailment and breaching of the tank cars, resulting in release of their hazardous materials contents. Additionally, in Draffin, Kentucky, the lead locomotives were separated from the hazardous materials tank cars by only one buffer car, which shortened the distance between the breached tank cars and the crewmembers, increasing the risk of injury or death.

In the Draffin derailment, the Pike County deputy emergency management director told NTSB investigators that firefighters observed the train crew grasping to the front of the lead locomotive while a large fire burned near them. He said the cab of the locomotive was engulfed in flames that came within 10 feet of the crew. The deputy emergency management director stated, “the fire was right at them and they appeared to be panicking ... their choices were to go toward the fire or jump into the river.” The train crew entered the water and ultimately was rescued by emergency responders.

The NTSB concluded that the severity of the Draffin, Kentucky, and Fort Worth, Texas, accidents could have been less severe had the DOT-111 tank cars been placed in locations within the train where they were less likely to derail or to sustain accident damage.

In 2015, the BLET petitioned the FRA to take regulatory action to mandate an increased number of buffer cars between the lead locomotive and trailing tank cars that contain oil. Current regulations require five buffer cars on a mixed freight train if the first car contains oil, but through a loophole in the regulations, only one buffer car is required on unit oil trains that could contain over 100 oil tankers. In derailments, locomotives can be a primary ignition source for spilled oil.

“Since engine and train crews occupy the cab of that potential ignition source, there should be as much distance away from the fuel source as possible,” wrote BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce in a letter to the FRA dated April 28, 2015. “Five cars may be insufficient, but one car is obviously not enough.”

The FRA responded to the BLET’s letter by tasking the Agency’s Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) with forming a working group to consider revisions to the hazardous materials regulations. The RSAC deadlocked on the subject, and the process eventually ground to a halt due, in part, to carrier intransigence on the buffer car issue.

The NTSB has previously recommended that the FRA develop requirements for the placement of cars carrying poison-inhalation hazard (PIH) materials to lessen their risk of derailment. As a result of the horrific derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in Graniteville, South Carolina, on January 6, 2005, the NTSB issued the following safety recommendation to the FRA: “Require railroads to implement operating measures, such as positioning tank cars toward the rear of trains and reducing speeds through populated areas, to minimize impact forces from accidents and reduce the vulnerability of tank cars transporting chlorine, anhydrous ammonia, and other liquefied gases designated as poisonous by inhalation.”

The NTSB issued a similar safety recommendation to the PHMSA in 2010, after the PHMSA issued a final rule aimed at improving the safety of tank car transportation of hazardous materials which did not include operational requirements for PIH hazardous materials placement in trains. The NTSB again issued similar safety recommendations to both groups following the oil train derailment and massive fire in Casselton, North Dakota, which occurred on December 30, 2013.

President Pierce said the BLET agrees with the NTSB’s latest safety recommendation. “As we have said for years, a change in the rule would require minor, easily accommodated operational changes and not the need for some expensive technology,” President Pierce said. “Continuing to allow the railroads to self-regulate puts the lives of train crews at risk, and could lead to a wholly unnecessary loss of life.”

For a PDF of the BLET’s 2015 letter to the FRA, click here.

For a PDF of the NTSB’s safety recommendation of December 15, 2020, click here.

Friday, December 18, 2020
bentley@ble-t.org

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