Railroad washouts are common. Accidents because of them aren’t. In the past 10 years, 64 accidents have been caused by washouts and 19 by floods — of nearly 10,000 — on the nation’s mainline rails, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. That’s because railroads are required to take specific safety measures during bad weather, experts say.
Railroad washouts are common. Accidents because of them aren’t.
The track’s support materials can be eroded by heavy rain or by a rising creek or stream during or after the storm. Standing water from a storm also can create a hazard.
In the past 10 years, 64 accidents have been caused by washouts and 19 by floods — of nearly 10,000 — on the nation’s mainline rails, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
That’s because railroads are required to take specific safety measures during bad weather, experts say.
So two things the National Transportation Safety Board will look for, as it investigates the June 19 derailment of a Canadian National Railway train in Rockford, are whether a reported washout and standing water on the track caused the crash and whether the railroad took the right steps to prevent it.
Investigators will take into account warning calls made by local police, the area’s history of flooding and the railroad’s safety record.
But industry experts and government officials say it could be more complicated than it appears.
“We want to caution folks that we haven’t drawn any conclusions yet,” NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said. “We look at everything at this point. ... (The rain) may or may not have been an issue.”
Still, residents and law enforcement think it might have been the key factor. Several people reported a washout at the site an hour before it happened, and the Winnebago County Sheriff’s
Department warned a CN representative 21 minutes before the train hit that section of track.
Federal law requires that, in the event of flood, “special inspection shall be made of the track involved as soon as possible after the occurrence and, if possible, before the operation of any train over that track.”
It’s not known whether CN made such an inspection, and the railroad is declining to comment during the investigation about the incident.
George Gavalla, a Connecticut rail safety consultant who once headed the FRA’s office of safety, said a 21-minute warning should have been enough time to stop the slow-moving train and inspect the track. He’s not familiar with the details of the incident, he said, but if there were
any doubt of the track’s viability, the railroad should have halted trains on the line.
“It’s not a new concept in the rail industry that if you have rain, you have washouts,” he said. “I’d be astonished if they would not send someone out to check on that before sending a train with hazardous materials out there.”
It’s possible the track was passable until just before the derailment.
“Unless you’ve got somebody there right when it happens, when something goes from safe to not safe is not known,” said Tom White, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, the industry trade group. “You could check it five minutes earlier and you wouldn’t know.”
People who live near the track say it has washed out at least twice in the past three years, and members of the Rockford Metropolitan Agency for Planning said Thursday that they need to look closely at drainage issues in that area.
But Randall Brassell, spokesman for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees — the union representing track inspectors — said three washouts in three years would not be uncommon.
“It wouldn’t be alarming if it wasn’t for the fact that they had a derailment,” he said. “I could see you having a big rainstorm and an inspector going out and riding the rails and it looks fine, and the water builds and washes the tracks out behind him.”
Another question raised is CN’s safety record. For nine of the past 10 years, CN’s U.S. accident rate has been ahead of the national average and one of the highest for major railroads.
In 2008, the railroad had 4.47 accidents per 1 million miles traveled by its trains; the national rate was 3.14. At the same time, CN’s accident rate dropped from 2007 to 2008 and is down so far this year.
And FRA spokesman Warren Flatau said the accident rate measures minor and major accidents the same, so it’s not a perfect gauge. He said CN has not been cited for safety violations that are out of line with other major railroads.
CN spokesman Patrick Waldron said CN’s accident rate for its entire system, including significant operations in Canada, is lower than the U.S.-only rate and ranks the railroad favorably with its peers.
“At CN, we view safety as everyone’s responsibility, and we work hard to create and improve a culture of safety awareness and safe practices,” he said.
Thomas V. Bona can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (815) 987-1343.