Changes in railroad regulations may prevent future Graniteville-like disasters

A worker for Norfolk Southern looks over the ruptured tanker that was carrying chlorine on Jan. 13, 2005.

 

 

Changes in federal regulations that guide the railroad industry might decrease the risk of having another accident similar to the one that shook Granite­ville awake Jan. 6, 2005, officials say.

The accident, according to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, was the result of an improperly placed switch, which led to a northbound Norfolk Southern Corp. freight train crashing into two locomotives and two cars parked on a spur line at the intersection of Marshall and Canal streets. The crash killed the train’s engineer, and eight people died from chlorine gas inhalation.

Five days after the accident, and because of similar incidents around the country, the Federal Railroad Administration issued a safety advisory asking railroads to immediately re-evaluate protocol regarding switch operations and documentation.

FRA spokesman Michael Cole said the agency uses accidents like the Graniteville disaster as an opportunity to revisit regulations and make safety improvements.

“Based on our investigation from the Graniteville, S.C., incident, we changed federal regulations to strengthen switching practices and issued industrywide guidance to toughen operation protocols around switching and training,” Cole said in an e-mail.

Those changes must pass through Congress, which then delegates its authority down to the FRA for implementation. Cole said the agency added a nine-page subsection to the Code of Federal Regulations on Feb. 13, 2008, that deals directly with switch operation and the operators training.

Robin Chapman, Norfolk Southern’s director of public relations, said the company has focused on “improving communication practices in the operating environment” and has plans to implement “positive train control” technology on the Graniteville line in compliance with a 2008 mandate by Congress. The technology is designed to protect against train-to-train collisions at improperly-set main track switches by stopping trains before an accident can happen.

Chapman credited Nor­folk Southern’s relationship with the Association of Ameri­can Railroads as one of the driving factors behind safety improvements, particularly when it comes to transporting hazardous material.

The company changed its definition of a “key train” from one that hauls five cars of hazardous toxic products to one hauling a single car of such material. Freight trains carrying the “key train” distinction are subject to greater restrictions while in transit.

AAR spokesman Ed Gre­enberg said Friday that the rail industry is constantly seeking ways to improve the practices in place. In 2014 alone, he said, the industry spent more than $26 billion to maintain and upgrade the nationwide rail network.

Ten years after the Gra­niteville event, Norfolk Sou­thern hasn’t forgotten about one of the deadliest train accidents the region has seen, Chapman said.

“For Norfolk Southern, the 10-year mark is a reminder that safety for our communities and for our employees remains our top priority, and we will continue to explore and implement ways to safeguard the communities in which we operate,” he said.

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