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Derailments Spur Push For Safer Railroad Oil-Tank Cars

By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — While some government and industry officials have repeatedly said there’s no silver bullet to improve the safety of oil trains, a persistent problem runs through every new derailment: the tank cars.

Oil industry groups maintain that railroads should do a better job of maintaining track to prevent derailments, while the rail industry has called for tank cars that are better equipped to survive accidents.

Although there’s almost universal consensus that improvements are required in both areas, there’s one key difference.

Railroads have already spent heavily in recent years to improve their track for all kinds of freight and have pledged to spend more. Meanwhile, the companies that own and lease tank cars for transporting oil and other flammable liquids have been waiting for regulators to approve a better design.

The railroad industry petitioned the U.S. Department of Transportation in March 2011 for a more robust tank-car design. Rather than wait for an answer, the industry began its own upgrades later that year. But several recent derailments involving different types of crude oil have suggested that those cars don’t perform significantly better than those they replaced.

And unlike the controversy that surrounds other proposed solutions or doubts about their effectiveness, tank-car upgrades have the support of lawmakers, regulators, mayors, governors, community, and industry groups, and the National Transportation Safety Board.

“We certainly have been distracted from doing what is the most obvious safety improvement: the cars,” said Peter Goelz, former managing director of the NTSB.

The White House Office of Management and Budget is reviewing proposals that include an improved tank-car design. But the new rules aren’t scheduled to be published until May, frustrating many who’ve pushed for better tank cars for years.

In January, the NTSB included tank cars on its “Most Wanted List” of safety improvements.

For more than two decades, the NTSB has called for improving the most common type of tank car, the DOT-111. But those calls were largely ignored until railroads started carrying significantly larger volumes of domestically produced crude oil and ethanol.

The minimally reinforced cars were vulnerable to punctures in derailments, spilling their contents, which quickly caught fire. Such fires could compromise other cars by heating their contents to the point where they burst through the tank walls with explosive force.

“Once you get a leak and fire, that can spread to other cars,” said Greg Saxton, chief engineer for the Greenbrier Companies, which is building a tank car to tougher standards. “That’s the number one thing we want to do. We don’t want to have a leak.”

After a July 2013 oil train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killed 47 people, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board found that none of the cars in that incident was equipped with thermal protection. The cars that sustained only minor impact damage ripped open after fire exposure, violently releasing their pressurized contents as large fireballs.

The rail industry made a few modifications to DOT-111 cars manufactured since 2011, including shields that protected the bottom half of each end of the car and more reinforcement for valves and outlets. But an outer steel jacket to provide extra puncture resistance and insulation to protect the car’s contents from fire exposure were optional.

In recent derailments in West Virginia, Illinois, and Ontario, the newer cars, called CPC-1232s, lacked those extra safeguards.

“Do we need a new standard for tank cars? Absolutely,” said Ed Hamberger, president and chief executive of the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s principal advocacy group.

Those existing cars could be retrofitted with jackets and thermal insulation until new ones are built. But even those improvements are waiting for approval by the White House.

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), and three Democratic co-sponsors — Patty Murray of Washington state, Dianne Feinstein of California, and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin — introduced a bill last week that would require an immediate ban on crude oil shipments in DOT-111 and non-jacketed CPC-1232 tank cars. It also would mandate that new cars meet a standard that exceeds any current requirement.

“No one wants to pull the trigger and say they should be removed,” Cantwell said in an interview. “We can’t wait to see a more aggressive plan.”

The redesigned tank car might look like the one the Canadian government proposed this month. It includes full-height shields on both ends, thermal insulation, and an outer jacket.

Last year, railroads agreed to limit oil train speeds to 40 mph in some densely populated areas and 50 mph everywhere else. But six of the most recent derailments cast doubt on the effectiveness of reducing speeds as a mitigation measure.

All the trains in the four most recent U.S. derailments that resulted in fires or spills were going under 40 mph. Three were traveling at less than 25 mph and one at just nine mph. In the two most recent Canadian wrecks, the trains were traveling at 38 and 43 mph.

The Federal Railroad Administration wants railroads to install electronic braking systems on trains that carry crude oil. But the industry opposes new braking requirements, and they wouldn’t address the vulnerabilities of tank cars to punctures and fire exposure.

Even those who support an “all of the above” approach to dealing with the problem say tank-car improvements are a crucial step.

“It’s unfortunate to have the NTSB investigating the same accident over and over again,” said Jim Hall, a former NTSB chairman. “We’re overdue in addressing this issue with the DOT-111.”

Photo: blake.thornberry via Flickr

Two Killed As Trains Collide In Southern U.S.

Washington (AFP) — Two people were killed and two injured when freight trains collided in the U.S. state of Arkansas early Sunday, officials said.

The collision took place in Hoxie, a town of approximately 3,000 people in northeastern Arkansas at around 3:00 a.m.

The dead and injured were all believed to be crew members, according to a police statement.

A fire which erupted following the collision involved a tank car that the National Transportation Safety Board said was carrying alcoholic beverages.

Some 500 people were evacuated from a 1.5-mile radius around the crash due to an initial report of a hazardous material release, but had since returned home, the NTSB said late Sunday.

NTSB investigators arrived on the scene at noon, promising to “look at every aspect” of the accident in their probe.

“We’ll be looking at signaling information, breaking, track information, train operations, and how the crew operated the trains,” NTSB spokesman Terry Williams told AFP.

He added that investigators will remain on the scene for around a week.

Both trains were from the Union Pacific Railroad. Police said the company told them that both trains were carrying toxic chemicals.

AFP Photo/Bertrand Guay

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Asiana Pilots Switched Off System That Might Have Averted Crash, NTSB Says

By Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — A federal safety panel on Tuesday concluded that the pilots flying the Asiana Airlines jet that crashed in San Francisco on July 6, 2013, mismanaged their landing approach and inadvertently shut off an automatic speed control system that might have prevented the accident.

Meeting in Washington, D.C., the National Transportation Safety Board also blamed the crash on the pilots’ failure to monitor their airspeed and altitude and a decision to abort the landing that came too late.

The crash occurred last July when an Asiana Boeing 777 en route from Seoul struck a sea wall and slammed into the runway while attempting to land at San Francisco International Airport. Three people were killed and 187 were injured, 49 seriously.

Investigators have said the pilots came in too slow and too low to touch down safely.

In addition to the main causes, the NTSB concluded that a number of factors contributed to the crash, including the complexity of the Boeing’s automated flight systems and fatigue that likely degraded the performance of the pilots.

The four-member panel also stated that the trainee captain at the controls that day lacked the training for landing an aircraft manually, and the pilot-instructor monitoring in the cockpit provided inadequate supervision.

During the hearing, the NTSB weighed a variety of factors, including the skill and training of Asiana’s pilots and the effect of computerized flight systems on flight crew awareness.

Much of the discussion focused on the design of a Boeing Co. throttle system that automatically adjusts airspeed.

Investigators found that the pilots inadvertently deactivated the device when they did not completely turn off the plane’s automated flight systems during the approach to landing. As a result, the automatic throttle went into a hold mode and could not activate when airspeed dropped.

Late last year, Asiana officials announced they would overhaul the airline’s safety procedures and improve training to sharpen flying skills, such as increasing the hours of flight simulator training for landings without relying on automated guidance systems.

The carrier has vowed to add safety specialists, improve maintenance and hire consultants to evaluate its procedures.

Meanwhile, the South Korean government is considering an increase in training requirements and tougher penalties for accidents that result in casualties.

AFP Photo / Josh Edelson

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Asiana Crew Confused By Aircraft’s Technology; Emergency Response Criticized, NTSB Finds

By Steve Johnson and Pete Carey, San Jose Mercury News

WASHINGTON — The deadly crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 at San Francisco International Airport directly resulted from the crew’s confusion over the plane’s technology, federal officials said Tuesday, adding that emergency officials responding to the scene were hampered by communication problems and lack of training.

The flight crew “over relied on systems they did not understand and flew the aircraft too low and slow, colliding with a seawall at the end of the runway,” said Christopher Hart, acting director of the National Transportation Safety Board, during a long-awaited hearing into the cause of the July 6 catastrophe, which killed three teenage passengers and injured 187 others. He added that the agency Tuesday will issue a report making recommendations “that address how humans interact with automation to prevent similar accidents in the future.”

Moreover, the agency’s staff said the flight crew “was likely experiencing fatigue,” and the fact that the person flying the plane and the other pilot monitoring him were both captains “led to confusion about who was responsible” for deciding to abort the landing and reposition the airplane for safer approach.

Officials with the safety board also were critical of San Francisco fire officials at the accident scene, saying some of their “operational decision-making reflected a lack of knowledge and training.”

The commander overseeing the emergency responders “was given erroneous information about the lack of fire at the accident site” and emergency personnel couldn’t speak to each other due to glitches with their communications equipment, they said. In addition, the safety board staff faulted fire officials whose trucks twice ran over a teenage passenger, who had been thrown from the crashed plane and died.

The firefighters had “a short window of opportunity” to assess the scene and avoid the girl after they arrived, “but they did not do so.”
With 12 crew members and 291 passengers — including 70 Chinese students and teachers headed to a summer camp — Flight 214 was inbound to San Francisco on a clear day from Seoul, South Korea, with an experienced pilot being trained to fly the 777, and his instructor sitting next to him. As the aircraft passed over the San Mateo Bridge, about 5 miles from the runway, the pilot executed a series of commands that caused it to lose speed rapidly, a problem the pilot discovered too late to execute a go-around for another try at landing.
What caused the confusion in the cockpit has been a key issue of concern, with much of the focus on the technology that has been added to airlines in recent decades to assist pilots.

Asiana has said the accident probably was caused by its flight crew’s failure to monitor and maintain safe airspeed during the landing and that a contributing factor was the crew’s “failure to execute a timely go-around” as required by company procedures. But the airline also faulted the Boeing 777’s complex automation controls for contributing to the accident, claiming “inconsistencies in the aircraft’s automation logic” led the crew to believe that the airplane was maintaining a safe airspeed. It added that warnings from the aircraft that something was wrong were “inadequate.”

Boeing countered in its own filing with the board that the accident would have been avoided “had the flight crew followed procedures and initiated a timely go-around” as the approach became increasingly unstable.

The NTSB can only make recommendations to regulatory agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration and its probable-cause findings are not admissible in court. However, the agency says that more than 82 percent of its recommendations have been adopted “by those in a position to effect change.”

AFP Photo / Josh Edelson

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