NTSB again stresses need for increased protection of high-hazard flammable material tankers, citing two recent derailments

Written by Bill Wilson, Editor-in-Chief
image description
The aftermath of the Feb. 13, 2020, CSX freight train derailment is seen in this screen shot from a UAV video provided by the Pike County Emergency Management Agency Feb. 14, 2020. The train was carrying denatured ethanol in Draffin, Ky., when the accident happened. Photo credit: Pike county emergency Management Agency, overlay by NTSB

The National Transportation Safety Board issued a safety recommendation in December regarding placement of Department Transportation-111 rail tank cars in high-hazard flammable trains and the use of buffer cars for the protection of train crews.

The recommendation requires all trains have a minimum of five non-placarded cars between any locomotive or occupied equipment transporting hazardous materials, regardless of train length and consist.

The recommendation stems from two separate derailments of high-hazard flammable trains in Draffin, Kentucky, and Fort Worth, Texas, which resulted in breached tank cars and hazardous material fires. The NTSB is investigating both derailments.

The Draffin, Ky., accident happened Feb.13, 2020, when a CSX Transportation ethanol unit train derailed three locomotives, one buffer car and four tank cars on a mountainside. The high-hazard flammable train had one buffer car at the head of the consist and one at the end of the train, with 96 denatured ethanol tank cars following the head buffer car. 

On April 24, 2019, a Union Pacific Railroad train carrying denatured ethanol, derailed 25 tank cars in Fort Worth, Texas. The train consisted of three lead locomotives, two buffer cars, and 96 loaded tank cars.

In the safety recommendation report, 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, the lead locomotives were separated from the hazardous materials tank cars by only on ebuffer car, which shortened the distance between the breached tank cars and the crewmembers, increasing the risk of injury or death. The NTSB concluded that the severity of the Draffin and Fort Worth 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.

“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.”

As a result of its investigations, the NTSB issued one recommendation to the Association of American Railroadsthe American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association, and the Renewable Fuels Association. This recommendation addresses the placement of the most vulnerable tank cars in high-hazard flammable trains, such as unmodified DOT-111 tank cars, in positions of trains where they are least likely to derail or to sustain mechanical damage from the effects of trailing tonnage or collision in an accident.

NTSB reiterated one safety recommendation issued to the Federal Railroad Administration, which is classified “Open—Acceptable Response.” NTSB also reiterated two safety recommendations issued to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, one classified as “Open—Acceptable Response,” and one classified as “Open—Unacceptable Response.”

The safety recommendation report, which includes the findings, and all safety recommendations, is available at https://go.usa.gov/xACuQ

Links to the Draffin, Ky., and Fort Worth, Texas, accidents reports and other publicly released information about these investigations are available at https://go.usa.gov/x7GxU

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