FILE - In this May 1, 2014, file photo survey crews in
boats look over tanker cars as workers remove damaged
tanker cars along the tracks where several CSX tanker
cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along
the James River near downtown Lynchburg, Va. Inspectors
have found almost 24,000 safety defects over a two-year
period along United States railroad routes used to ship
volatile crude oil. Data obtained by The Associated
Press shows many of the defects were similar to problems
blamed in past derailments that caused massive fires or
oil spills in Oregon, Virginia and Montana.
Chris Bucher/Freeman Staff
BILLINGS, Mont. — When a freight train derailed in
the Montana town of Culbertson, spilling 27,000 gallons
of crude oil, investigators blamed the 2015 accident on
defective or missing fasteners used to hold the tracks
The previous year, cracks in a track that went
unrepaired caused a train hauling oil to come off the
rails and explode along the James River in Lynchburg,
Virginia. Broken bolts were cited in another oil train
derailment and fire last year in Mosier, Oregon.
Data obtained by The Associated Press shows that tens of
thousands of similar safety defects were found when
government inspectors checked the rail lines used to
haul volatile crude oil across the country. The defects
included rails that were worn, bolts that were broken or
loose or missing, and steel bars that had cracks.
Such flaws are not uncommon across the nation's
140,000-mile freight rail network. But these nearly
24,000 imperfections drew heightened attention because
of a surge in recent years of domestic energy production
that has increased rail shipments of oil and the number
of major derailments.
The inspectors also noted failures by railroads to
quickly fix problems identified through inspections.
A former senior official at the Federal Railroad
Administration said the findings reinforce the need for
railroads to stay on top of regular maintenance.
"All of this is a call for continued vigilance," said
Steven Ditmeyer, who reviewed the inspection data and
directed the railroad administration's Office of
Research and Development for eight years. "One defect or
one violation of the right kind can cause a derailment."
It can be difficult for railroads to know when a
seemingly small problem will result in an accident, he
The statistics "give a good indication of the track
quality," Ditmeyer said, although most defects will not
cause a derailment.
In all, nearly 24,000 defects were found on almost
58,000 miles of oil train routes in 44 states. The
inspection program began two years ago following a
string of oil train accidents across North America,
including a 2013 derailment in Quebec that killed 47
people in the community of Lac-Megantic.
Federal regulators said the inspections resulted in
1,118 violation recommendations and prompted railroads
to be more responsive to inspectors and to improve
A violation recommendation occurs when an inspector
finds something serious enough to warrant a potential
penalty or a railroad fails to address a defect. Federal
officials declined to say how many penalties had been
issued under the crude-by-rail inspection program.
The rail industry views safety defects as warnings from
regulators, said Jessica Kahanek, a spokeswoman for the
Association of American Railroads.
Violations are a better indicator of safety problems
because not all defects pose an immediate risk, she
said, explaining that hundreds of the violation
recommendations were "paperwork-related," such as
railroads not providing required forms to government
Omaha, Nebraska-based Union Pacific received most of the
violation recommendations issued under the targeted
inspection program — more than 800. A breakdown for
violations involving other railroads was not available.
Union Pacific agreed to increase its inspection
frequencies following the Mosier derailment under an
agreement with federal regulators who said the
railroad's inspection program was too lax.
Railroad spokeswoman Calli Hite said the railroad shares
the railroad administration's dedication to safety.
"Union Pacific has always paid close attention to track
conditions and inspections," Hite said.
Most violations were found in the months after the
inspection program began in January 2015 in the
Southwest, where officials said Union Pacific runs a
majority of the oil trains. In many cases, violation
recommendations came after the railroad did not respond
quickly enough to problems found by inspectors, said
Marc Willis, a spokesman for the railroad
Subsequent inspections turned up thousands of additional
safety problems but far fewer recommendations for
That was because the high number of violation
recommendations for Union Pacific sent a message to the
entire industry to quickly address any issue raised by
inspectors, officials said.
"Railroads are paying closer attention," Willis said,
adding that derailments have fallen 10 percent since the
inspection program began. "Although many minor defects
still are being identified ... both FRA and railroad
inspectors are finding fewer serious conditions,
resulting in significant safety improvements."
It's uncertain whether the targeted inspection program
for oil trains will continue under President Donald
Trump's administration, he said.
Since 2006, the United States and Canada have seen at
least 27 oil train accidents involving a fire,
derailment or significant fuel spill. Besides the
targeted inspection program, U.S. and Canadian officials
have responded with more stringent construction
standards for tens of thousands of tank cars that haul
oil and other flammable liquids.
The amount of oil moving by rail peaked in 2014 then
dropped after crude prices collapsed. Major railroads
reported moving more than 43,000 carloads of crude in
the fourth quarter of 2016, down almost 50 percent from
a year earlier, according to the railroad association.