On a snowy morning in February 2014, a Norfolk Southern freight train snaked east through rural Westmoreland County with 83 of its cars loaded with crude oil.
It was cruising at about 30 mph near Vandergrift when it hit a section of track where the rail was slightly too far apart. The spikes designed to hold the rails in place were missing or defective, according to preliminary company-reported federal data.
The train derailed, violently tossing 21 cars — 19 carrying crude oil, two carrying propane — from the tracks. The force punctured four cars and spilled 4,300 gallons of oil across the banks of the Kiskiminetas River.
All told, Pennsylvania’s largest crude oil spill since 1990 caused more than $2 million in damage.
As an oil boom in North Dakota has put more of the volatile commodity on rails headed to refineries for processing, news of such derailments concerns public officials. They have suggested rerouting trains around urban areas and diluting the crude to make it less volatile. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has been particularly vocal, sending a letter to President Barack Obama in February and hiring a prominent rail safety consultant in April to advise the state on the crude-by-rail issue.
The U.S. Department of Transportation in April released long-anticipated rules that would phase out older tank cars and require electronically controlled brakes for trains carrying crude oil and ethanol.
Largely escaping scrutiny, however, has been a key factor in derailments and one almost exclusively outside government control: the track itself.
Track defects are the leading cause of derailments and internal rail flaws account for the most damaging of them, according to an analysis of government data and academic reports. Those tasked with identifying and fixing track flaws say more needs to be done to improve track inspection, including more frequent checks.
But with the rise in crude shipments by rail has come added pressure on company-employed inspectors who are — much like construction workers on a busy highway — disruptors of traffic.
Richard Inclima has been focused on the issue of rail inspections for years, pushing in countless negotiations, testimonies and meetings for more federal oversight.
“The key to this whole puzzle is keeping the trains upright and on the track, and nobody in this country is talking about the foundation of the railroad,” said Mr. Inclima, a former track inspector in New England and the longtime director of safety and education for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, a union representing company-employed track inspectors.
“If you keep the things on the track and upright, you’re not gonna have these types of catastrophic accidents to a large extent,” Mr. Inclima said.
Despite the spate of high-profile derailments, the 140,000-mile U.S. freight railroad system statistically is safer than it’s ever been, thanks largely to the rapid development of better inspection practices and technology.
Derailment rates nationwide have dramatically decreased since the 1980s, and government data last month confirmed 2014 was the safest year on record. The track-caused accident rate last year has more than halved since 2000.
Still, there were nearly 9,000 derailments on U.S. railroads in the last 10 years totaling nearly $2 billion in damage.
And on Pennsylvania’s more than 5,000 miles of track, about 300 freight trains have derailed during that same time, causing more than $31 million in damage.
More than half of those derailments were caused by track defects, according to a Post-Gazette analysis of accident data collected by the Federal Railroad Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation. About 24 percent were attributed to human error, and the rest were listed as a result of equipment, systems and miscellaneous failures.
The Federal Railroad Administration employs roughly six dozen track inspectors — enough to inspect less than 1 percent of track — and it expects 30 percent of its field safety staff to retire in the next few years, according to a 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office. Though all track is subject to the agency’s regulation, its oversight in the field, the report suggested, amounts to little more than cursory checks for compliance and civil penalties for only the most serious of offenses.
This has left an estimated 2,500 inspectors employed by large rail companies as the gatekeepers of rail safety.
“They know the railroad like you know your home,” said Mr. Inclima, who spent 16 years on the rail corridor between Boston and New Haven, Conn., starting as a track repairman and working his way up to an inspector position. He joined union leadership in 1991 and has since represented inspectors in rule-making proceedings with the Federal Railroad Administration and other agencies and submitted expert testimony in accident investigations.
“They are the best of the best.”
Track inspectors who work in Pennsylvania and New York declined to speak on the record for this article, citing fear of retribution from their employer. But they said they support Mr. Inclima’s efforts.
The basic track design has persevered for more than a century: two hot-rolled steel rails over perpendicular cross-ties — typically wooden, but sometimes concrete or steel — on a foundation of ballast, normally crushed stone.
Defects that push trains off the tracks can involve minuscule shifts in the precise layout and design, called the track geometry, the analysis showed.
Behind many derailments is a condition called a wide gauge, which happens when the track’s two individual rails are spread too far apart due to broken or missing spikes, cross ties or other fasteners that help hold the rail in place.
Wide gauges have caused nearly one in five of all derailments in Pennsylvania, including the derailment in Westmoreland County last year, according to the initial report submitted by Norfolk Southern to the Federal Railroad Administration, which is investigating the accident.
Most wide-gauge accidents happen at low speeds and on less trafficked rail, said Gary Wolf, a rail industry consultant with 40 years of experience investigating causes of train derailments.
Much more concerning for inspectors and rail companies are broken rails, which can range from small chips to complete breaks. These cause derailments in Pennsylvania almost as often as wide gauges but lead to more damage.
Incipient breaks in the rail are extremely difficult to catch prior to breaking open, Mr. Wolf said, because they can begin as sub-molecular anomalies that formed as the steel cooled at the time of manufacture.
“It stays there for years and years as a small undetectable defect,” said Mr. Wolf, who has assisted federal officials and rail companies in determining the cause of oil train derailments. “Only under repeated loadings of the millions and millions of wheels going across does that small crack start to open up. And it can grow fairly quick … or it might grow progressively over several weeks.”
As a result, inspectors can skim right over the flaws. Federal accident investigations show that even before the most devastating accidents, track inspectors rarely, if ever, were accused of deviating from their required schedule. The Federal Railroad Administration requires visual inspections on most main line freight routes at least twice a week, and companies often exceed that.
In West Virginia, a derailment in February near Charleston crashed 27 oil tankers and forced 100 people from their homes. CSX inspectors had reportedly inspected the track three days prior to the accident. The cause of the West Virginia derailment is under Federal Railroad Administration investigation.
“Unfortunately, most of our broken rails, when they result in a derailment, they happen basically under the train,” said Tod Echler, CSX assistant vice president of engineering.
Rail companies have turned to ultrasonic technology that scans rail for internal flaws no eye can catch. Sperry Rail Service, a Connecticut manufacturer of ultrasonic rail cars, has supplied most major rail companies with inspection vehicles that are, in essence, modified box trucks.
On a recent afternoon, two Sperry contractors demonstrated how the process works while they inspected a segment of CSX track near McKeesport. Emilie Barnes sat in the driver’s seat of the ultrasonic rail car and inched it along the track, while James Smith monitored an array of screens in the back.
Mr. Smith explained that an apparatus attached to the truck’s undercarriage sends an electrical current into each rail, as six rollerblade-sized wheels — three on each side — roll along and collect data. That data instantaneously fills Mr. Smith’s screens with color-coded spreadsheets and charts.
If a defect is flagged by the system, Mr. Smith gets out with a hand-held device to see if there’s an explanation for the anomaly. A CSX manual hanging overhead dictates how he should classify and respond to suspected defects.
If the defect is serious enough, inspectors can stop traffic completely. But they more often lower the track’s speed limit until a repair crew can make a fix.
“Every inch is tested. It doesn’t skip a beat,” Mr. Smith said.
CSX inspects its most heavily trafficked rail by ultrasound monthly, complementing the minimum twice-a-week visual inspections mandated by the Federal Railroad Administration. Two CSX inspectors are typically responsible for about 100 miles of track. They work four, 10-hour days a week in staggered shifts.
Officials with Norfolk Southern, which operates the other major freight line through Pittsburgh, declined interview requests. In a written statement, spokesman David Pidgeon noted the company’s track in the region is inspected visually at least once a week and by ultrasonic vehicle at least once a year.
While Mr. Smith with Sperry analyzed his truck’s readings, the inside of the car began to rumble — “Hot rail on one,” Ms. Barnes called out from the driver’s seat — and crude oil tanker cars headed north sped past on the next track over.
Asked about whether they have to compete with traffic, the inspectors responded emphatically.
“Oh my gosh, yes, definitely,” Ms. Barnes said with a laugh.
“They have trains they have to run and, let’s face it, that’s what makes them money,” Mr. Smith said. “But then again, we’re a necessity as well.”
Trains stacking up
Most company-employed track inspectors’ typical assigned territory spans 75 to 80 miles of track.
They perform visual inspections primarily from a vehicle that rides the track at about 15 to 25 mph and allows them to cover 65 to 80 miles of track daily. Occasionally, inspectors travel on foot, but usually not farther than a few miles per day.
While the Federal Railroad Administration imposes requirements on inspection frequency, it allows the inspectors to decide how quickly they complete checks.
As traffic on freight rail lines has increased, it has complicated the delicate balance between getting freight to customers on time and allowing enough time for proper inspections.
Freight railroads moved 28.7 million carloads in 2014 — the industry’s busiest year since it moved 28.9 million carloads in 2007, according to the Association of American Railroads. Crude shipments have proliferated: For every one carload of crude oil in 2008, 50 carloads traveled the nation’s rail lines in 2014.
“When you have increases in traffic, then you reduce those windows of opportunity for conducting inspections and repairs. It’s just simple math,” Mr. Inclima said. “There are undoubtedly pressures from traffic and dispatchers that will get the inspector over the track as quick as possible because trains are stacking up.”
In a first-of-its-kind survey of track inspectors, the Federal Railroad Administration found it was not uncommon for an inspector to get forced off the track due to dispatcher decisions, leading to “increased inspection speeds in order to get over an assigned territory, or it results in a portion of the territory not getting inspected.”
The inspectors union embarked on its own study of track inspections but the dual studies ended up painting similar pictures. In the union report, nearly three in four inspectors surveyed described pressure from train dispatchers that “compromises their ability to conduct track inspections.”
CSX spokesman Gary Sease said the company disagreed with the findings of both reports. Its inspectors are fully empowered to tell a dispatcher to slow or stop trains if they find a defect, he said, and carve out adequate time to do track inspections.
“Our whole business model depends on a safe, reliable railroad to serve our customers and get our shipments to them on time,” Mr. Sease said.
He acknowledged, however, that repairs require prioritization on the fly when track inspectors find something they’re not equipped to fix.
“When you have to take somebody out from what they planned to do that day, that’s where the conversation can become: ‘Well, is it something we have to do today?’ ” he said.
Mr. Wolf, the derailment expert, said he’s been in dispatchers’ offices when conversations with inspectors and maintenance crews get heated.
“Yeah, they get frustrated,” he said.
The inspectors union gradually has been working to toughen federal rules in committee meetings with dozens of railroad representatives and government officials. Led by Mr. Inclima, they are pushing for more frequent inspections of track geometry, more ultrasonic testing, shorter windows for companies to fix known defects and more repair crews to assist inspectors.
But the Federal Railroad Administration’s past rules on rail integrity, he said, have been watered down by the necessary evil of compromise in the rule-making process, he said. There remains a “philosophical difference” between himself and the rail companies and regulators.
“The railroads like to have the flexibility. They don’t want to be told what to do,” Mr. Inclima said. “And the agency at this point is, frankly, unwilling to look at these obvious improvements.”
In a statement, a spokesman for the FRA said the agency is always looking for innovative ways to improve safety. The rulemaking committee is currently considering a technology that allows an ultrasonic inspection car to travel uninterrupted for greater distances, all while processing data.
“This process results in greater coverage in the rail network without disrupting normal flow of traffic,” said the spokesman, Michael England. “FRA views this process as a more modern and methodical method of flaw detection.”
Daniel Moore: email@example.com, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.