WASHINGTON — A prestigious scientific organization on Wednesday called for more frequent and better inspections of freight railroad tracks to prevent potentially catastrophic oil and ethanol train crashes.
A report by the National Academies of Sciences also urged better training for emergency workers and questioned the validity of recent train speed regulation.
From 2005 to 2015, there were 21 derailments or collisions in the U.S. of trains hauling crude oil, resulting in the release of 1.6 million gallons. There were 58 ethanol train crashes over the same period, resulting in the release of 2.6 million gallons. The trains are often more than 100 cars long, and spilled oil or ethanol from ruptured tank cars has ignited and created giant fireballs that can last for days.
Several derailments were attributed to track problems that weren’t detected in inspections shortly before the incidents. Federal regulations presume that inspectors won’t always catch all track problems, but the report questions whether there should be an acceptable failure rate. It suggests that these rates and priorities for track repair be adjusted for routes used by trains hauling crude oil and ethanol.
The government should encourage railroads to make more frequent and comprehensive inspections of track on routes regularly used by oil and ethanol trains, including the use of advances in inspection technologies like sensors, high-resolution imaging and autonomous systems, the report said. Some railroads are using drones to increase track inspections.
Derailments of all kinds reached an all-time low in 2016, said Jessica Kahanek, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads. Derailments involving crude oil account for less than 1 percent of all derailments, she said.
Railroads are already using many of the technologies mentioned in the report and are doing extensive research on ways “to make a safe network even safer,” Kahanek said.
The report also questioned the technical basis for a recent safety regulation that reduced the maximum speed for oil trains to 50 mph in most areas and 40 mph in urban areas.
Of the 20 most serious train wrecks in which oil and ethanol were released in the United States from 2005 to 2015, none of the trains were traveling faster than 50 mph and only six were traveling at 40 mph or more, the report said.
Some safety advocates favor a 30 mph limit. The railroad industry opposes the lower speed, saying it would cause traffic jams and shipping delays.