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April 2014

Rail News: PTC

PTC is needed now, not later — NTSB's Deborah Hersman (guest comment)


By Deborah Hersman

In an unprecedented action, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently joined with our counterpart to the north, the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada, to issue a series of safety recommendations regarding the transport of flammable liquids by rail.

These recommendations are a direct response to the increased risk exposure created by a modern-day energy boom. Since 2005, we have witnessed a more than 400 percent increase in crude oil and ethanol traffic by rail. Most of the product is transported in unit trains of DOT-111 tank cars that operate as rolling pipelines through our nation's communities.

While the majority of these trains make it to their destinations without incident, there have been notable accidents on both sides of the border in the last year. On July 6, 2013, a 4,700-foot-long train that included 72 DOT-111 tank cars loaded with crude oil from the Bakken fields in North Dakota derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, triggering an intense fire fed by over 1.5 million gallons of crude oil released from at least 60 cars. The fire engulfed the surrounding area and completely destroyed buildings and property. Forty-seven people died. In the United States, an accident near Casselton, N.D., on Dec. 30, 2013, led to 20 cars of a 106-car crude oil unit train releasing more than 476,000 gallons of crude, resulting in a massive fire that triggered a voluntary evacuation of 1,400 people from the surrounding area.

Both the NTSB and the TSB have recommended that tank-car crashworthiness should be improved by retrofitting or replacing the DOT-111 tank cars; and that the hazardous liquids carried in them be properly classified and routed around major cities and towns. We have also asked the railroads to step up their response activities in the event of an accident involving one of these trains, simply because few communities are equipped to deal with a worst-case scenario.

While many of these interventions focus on improvements needed to mitigate the damage following an accident, the NTSB has long focused on preventing accidents in the first place. For decades we have called for the implementation of positive train control (PTC), and increasing the safety of rail mass transit; both of these issues are included in our 2014 Most Wanted List of transportation improvements.

The NTSB has investigated scores of freight and public transit railroad accidents which stem from human issues, ranging from lapses in train operating crew judgment to inadequate inspection or repair of track to poor leadership by senior management in failing to prioritize safety over schedules. While the railroad industry excels at achieving efficiency and meeting performance goals, railroads also need to continuously improve their understanding of the role of human error in accidents and near-accident events. This improved knowledge can be utilized to strengthen operational policies, practices and procedures to manage and mitigate the safety risks. Critical areas include train crew resource management, fatigue management systems and confidential close-call reporting systems. Future gains may be achieved through data-driven safety management systems, additional technological advancements in railroad maintenance and operations such as autonomous track inspection and in-cab video recorders, and through improving trust and building a stronger safety culture with their employees.

At the intersection of voluntary efforts and government mandates is the biggest rail safety improvement of this generation: PTC. While the NTSB commends the enormous and costly implementation efforts being made by many railroads, each day that goes by without PTC, the risk of preventable accidents remains. That point was driven home again last December, when a Metro-North commuter train derailed in the Bronx, N.Y., killing four people and injuring dozens of others. The train entered a curve at approximately 82 mph, where the maximum authorized speed was 30 mph, something that PTC could have prevented.

It is because of our investigations of accidents like this and others that the NTSB continues to advocate for implementation of PTC without delay. PTC is needed now, not later. Lives depend on it.

Transportation by rail is safe, but it can be safer.

On April 25, Deborah A.P. Hersman will step down as chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to serve as president and chief executive officer of the National Safety Council. Hersman joined the NTSB in 2004 and served as chair since 2009.


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