Better Oil Train Safety Possible By Focusing On The Tracks

Aging roadways and crumbling bridges have been publicized for years, but weak rail lines have received far less attention. Rail systems are one of our oldest national transportation networks and one of the busiest in the world. The increasing frequency of accidents and derailments, especially those that involve oil tankers, has many FELA attorneys and public safety advocates concerned. In August 2015, the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (AII) published a 22-page white paper that recommends better track inspections, high-tech sensors and more efficient safety practices to improve rail safety in the 21st century. This comes after officials in the United States and Canada announced they would require more durable specifications and better brakes for new tanker cars. The Federal Railroad Administration requires monthly inspections of all crossings, switches, signals and other devices, but these requirements might not be adequately enforced. There are few penalties for companies that fail to comply with these rules and new directives that will be introduced in the Positive Train Control initiative at the end of the year. According to FELA railroad injury accident lawyers, the problem might be that the rail industry is mostly self-governed because safety regulations are not enforced. An op-ed published in the New York Times argued that federal safety standards are far too low. For example, more than three-quarters of railroad ties can be defective in a 39-foot section of track where the speed limit is 10 miles per hour. On the best tracks where trains can travel 80 miles per hour, half of the crossties can be rotten or missing. Based on this evidence, it is clear that traveling on these fragile tracks is risky even with next-generation tanker cars. Defective and missing railroad ties are not the only critical problems. The nation’s railways are threatened by aging bridges. One of the most infamous is the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad Bridge that travels through Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The wooden trestles on either side of the bridge were built in 1897. Today, freight trains and oil tank cars rumble over the bridge past the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater and recreational paths that are used by families and joggers. Railroad companies are not the only ones to blame for deficient maintenance programs and infrequent inspections. The Federal Railroad Administration only employs 76 inspectors who are responsible for reviewing reports and determining which areas require repairs. Some 100,000 railroad bridges are scattered across the country, and each structure must be inspected annually. With such a small number of qualified engineers, it is no surprise that oversight has been so lax. If officials ever catch up, a significant number of costly repairs can be expected. In the case of the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad Bridge, federal inspectors said that it was safe although crossbars were missing and dangling from the bridge. The company that operates the bridge said it would make $2.5 million in repairs voluntarily. This announcement was only made after an online expose revealed the weathered state of the structure. Maintaining and inspecting this extensive network of rails and bridges is a gargantuan task, but it needs to be done to ensure the safety of railroad workers and people who live and work near these transportation corridors. Train accident attorneys and leaders at the AII recommend using technology to improve safety. This includes installing track integrity sensors, ballast integrity sensors and gage restraint measurement systems that transmit real-time data and have the potential to prevent deadly rail accidents. In the past 16 months, five American oil trains have exploded, but there were no fatalities. Former National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman Deborah Hersman suggests that the industry has a “tombstone mentality” and will not be pressured to act until the tombstones that have been seen in Canada cross the border.