Months before a CSX train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in Mount Carbon, W.Va., polluting the air and water and forcing more than 1,100 people from their homes, inspectors missed a problem with the track there.
Inspection reports compiled by a railroad contractor and CSX showed evidence of the defect, but the track wasn’t repaired or replaced. In fact, CSX officials and federal regulators didn’t find out about the defect until it was too late.
About 140,000 miles of train tracks crisscross the nation, carrying hazardous cargo past houses, hospitals and schools every day. And hundreds of trains derail or crash each year because of problems with those tracks.
One-third of all incidents — about 17,000 since 1995 — are blamed on problems with track.
For the most part, railroads are responsible for inspecting their own tracks, but they don’t report those inspections to regulators. Federal inspectors see those reports only if they audit railroads or investigate a crash.
And as trains have gotten longer, heavier and started carrying more Bakken — the most volatile crude oil in the world — the number of federal inspectors conducting those audits and their own checks has remained nearly the same.
In 2006, before hydraulic fracturing opened up new shale-oil fields, the Federal Railroad Administration employed 344 inspectors. Today, it has 346 — one inspector for every 400 miles of track in the United States.
States also employ their own inspectors, but it’s unclear how many monitor tracks. Some estimates peg the total number of state inspectors nationwide at about 180.
Ohio has three.
“It’s clear that (the Federal Railroad Administration) does not have the manpower, nor do they really have the charge to go out and do the inspection,” said Rick Inclima, safety director for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division, the union that represents track inspectors.
Federal railroad officials declined an interview for this series.
Inclima said the union represents about 35,000 members who build, maintain, inspect and repair railroad tracks, bridges and other infrastructure related to rail transport. About 1,500 members are track inspectors employed by the railroads.
When an inspector detects track problems, railroads must follow federal regulations to address them, said Ed Greenberg, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads. They can block tracks or slow down trains that use them until they are repaired.
“If a potential issue or something is identified by the visual inspection or specialized track inspection vehicles or a train crew that reports something, it is considered a priority to address it,” he said.
Crude-oil trains that rumble through Franklin County every week barely registered on the local radar five years ago.
Back then, county officials were more focused on trucks carrying hazardous cargo. A county study showed gasoline was the most common hazardous material in Franklin County at the time, and it primarily was moved on highways.
Trucks carrying hazardous materials generally are barred from going through the city center and must stay on I-270 unless they are making local deliveries.
Today, though, crude oil fills more tankers than any other chemical passing through the region. And it moves through Franklin County in 30,000-gallon tank cars — about four times larger than a single truck tanker. Those train cars often are part of trains that can stretch a mile long.
The 2010 study didn’t show rail to be a significant threat because it didn’t look closelyat railroads at all.
Central Ohio — like other regions across the country — now is taking notice of the trains made up of black, pill-shaped tankers carrying volatile crude oil.
Track-inspection problems are drawing more attention, and emergency responders are talking about the potential for a catastrophic crude oil derailment in densely populated areas.
The domestic oil boom has put millions more gallons of crude on rails. Crude derailments have caused tens of millions of dollars in damage and killed dozens of people.
In 2013, a runaway train derailed in downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people in the resort town across the Canadian border from Maine.
Derailments and explosions are, some experts say, unavoidable: The more crude oil we ship, the greater the risk of derailments.
Crude-oil production has increased in the United States by nearly 33 percent since 1995, according to the Energy Information Administration. North Dakota, where much of the Bakken shale oil is located, produced about 13.5 times as much oil in that same time.
Production has slowed a bit as the price of crude oil has dropped, but the numbers, particularly in North Dakota, still are among the highest they have ever been.
And though the United States still imports more oil than it produces domestically, hydraulic fracturing to release oil and gas has opened geologic formations deep underground to drilling that previously would have been difficult or impossible.
Oil doesn’t come out of the ground ready to use. It must be transported by pipeline, train, truck or barge to refineries along both coasts. No type of transportation is completely safe. Pipelines rupture, barges sink, and trucks crash.
But during the past few years, more and more trains carrying crude oil from the Bakken shale fields have derailed, often causing toxic spills and fiery explosions.
A single train can transport as much hazardous material as 500 trucks, according to Franklin County’s study.
And as crude-oil production has grown in the United States, so has the number and size of crude-oil spills from trains, according to a Dispatch analysis of data from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
Domestic oil production from shale was still in its early stages in 2010 when Franklin County’s study of chemicals coming through the region looked at 90 rail cars compared with nearly 2,200 trucks.
This year, however, a new study examined nearly 5,300 rail cars and about 3,400 trucks.
Train tracks run through the heart of Ohio’s largest population centers, including Downtown Columbus, and through small towns ill-equipped to handle major derailments.
Since 1995, problems with track were blamed in more than 600 Ohio derailments.
As with all derailments, those caused by track defects are dropping. In 1995, railroads reported 800 track-caused derailments nationwide. In 2014, they reported about 500.
However, most trains weren’t carrying volatile crude oil 20 years ago. Today, they carry millions of gallons.
Federal Railroad Administration Director Sarah Feinberg vowed after the investigation of the CSX train derailment in Mount Carbon, W.Va., that the agency would renew its focus on track problems.
The agency released a safety advisory urging more-detailed inspections when defects and flaws are suspected and more training for rail-inspection-vehicle operators. The agency also said it plans to look at whether standards for rail wear are needed and whether trains should be slowed or rails replaced when evidence of poor conditions are found.
The federal government has rules for how often tracks must be inspected based on the class of track and how fast trains can travel on them.
Railroads are required to visually inspect the highest class of track at least twice a week and keep records of the inspections.
Twice-weekly inspections should be “an absolute minimum,” said Inclima, of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees. The union has advocated requiring supplemental inspections that use new technology to evaluate track.
Railroad companies are testing various forms of new technology to detect problems with track, Greenberg said. They aren’t required by regulators to use all of them, though.
Another issue is federal manpower.
Since 2012, the Federal Railroad Administration has asked Congress for 154 additional safety positions. It has received 30, according to the agency.
In 2013, a Government Accountability Office report warned that the railroad agency might face an inspector crisis.
At the time, about one-third of federal inspectors were expected to reach retirement eligibility in the next five years, and the report said preparing a single new inspector could take as long as two years.
A spokesman for the rail agency said it is addressing problems in the accountability report.
The railroad administration also has a fleet of rail cars that can detect some track imperfections. Those survey about 30,000 miles of track a year, leaving more than 110,000 miles without coverage from this extra safety measure.
“It doesn’t take too long before little things pop up, and if you don’t take care of the little things, big things pop up,” Inclima said.
On top of the federal inspectors, 31 states participate in a federal program that allows state inspectors to be certified and report problems to the railroad administration.
The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio has 10 inspectors for the railroads. Three of them focus on the nearly 5,300 miles of track in the state.
The federal agency does not track the number of state inspectors, a spokesman said.
Ohio’s inspectors are required to have at least one year of experience working for a railroad company, said Randall Schumacher, who oversees the state’s rail-inspection division.
State inspectors spend at least 50 days a year monitoring track, signals, equipment, hazardous materials and operations for the Federal Railroad Administration. They also inspect railroad crossings.
“A railroad is just like a building. It’s a structure, only it’s lying down,” said Jerry Gibson, a PUCO rail inspector. “The train is like an earthquake every day. It’s very high maintenance.”
In August, a new strike team of federal inspectors spent about two weeks monitoring tracks that carry crude oil and ethanol in the region that includes Ohio.
The new program focused on routes near metropolitan areas, places where more defects are detected and areas in which a derailment could threaten the environment.
The 24 inspectors combed about 1,900 miles of track in six states and Washington, D.C. Findings have yet to be compiled, the spokesman said.
A train carrying Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to Canada derailed last month in an industrial section of Watertown, Wis. The cars did not explode or catch fire, which was lucky, said Mayor John David.
David said at the town’s insistence, Canadian Pacific released inspection reports for a bridge that carries crude-oil trains. The report, he said, showed that the bridge is sound.
He also said the railroad company plans to make some repairs and re-inspect the bridge next year.
“They say lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place,” David said. “I hope that’s true in train derailments.” A new federal law allows state or local governments to access a public version of a bridge inspection that shows its general condition.
Federal regulators don’t compile data on bridge inspections.
For the most part, however, railroad companies have focused their lobbying efforts on the tank cars that carry oil. The railroads are responsible for the track, not the cars.
After the 2013 deadly crash in Quebec, Canada, not far from the Maine border, U.S. officials began to make some changes.
The Department of Transportation created new rules to replace outdated tank cars and lower the speed at which crude-oil trains are allowed to travel through densely populated areas, such as Columbus.
Oil companies also are required to do more testing of crude oil before it ships. The tests look for boiling temperatures and flammable gases and help classify the shipments.
But some who watch the oil-by-train industry say those measures fall short.
The rules, for example, allow older tank cars to be retrofitted over five years, which means those cars still could be on the tracks hauling crude oil.
The Sierra Club and other environmental groups had advocated for oil companies to strip volatile materials from crude oil at the wellheads but were unsuccessful.
Wayde Schafer, conservation director for the Sierra Club in North Dakota, said the advocacy group worries about the railroad routes that carry crude.
“When railroads were designed and the routes chosen, they wanted to get just from point A to point B as quickly as possible,” he said. “They weren’t designed to haul these volatile chemicals and … they don’t take into account population centers or sensitive wildlife areas.
“They’ll go across wetlands or rivers — whatever — hauling something that is a very volatile, could explode or could be a huge source of pollution.”
Dispatch Library Director Julie Fulton contributed to this story.
This article was written by Rick Rouan & Laura Arenschield from The Columbus Dispatch and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.