Are railroads up to speed? Investigators say no

The federal report on the June 3 oil train derailment in Oregon blamed Union Pacific and suggested updates are needed for safety. The railroad system's size and complexity are still resisting full updates. 

Brent Foster/AP/File
This June 6 image taken from a drone shows crumpled oil tankers lying beside the railroad tracks after a fiery June 3 train derailment that prompted evacuations from the tiny Columbia River Gorge town of Mosier, Ore. Federal investigators on Thursday blamed Union Pacific Railroad for the derailment along the Oregon-Washington border, saying the company failed to properly maintain its track.

A federal investigation is placing the blame on Union Pacific for a train that derailed June 3 along the Oregon-Washington border, recommending that the industry update an aging braking system – a move that companies have so far resisted. 

At least 27 accidents involving oil trains have occurred in the last decade, according to an Associated Press analysis. Lawmakers want to tighten the bolts on safety regulations, but have struggled to raise enough awareness about what some say is an urgent need to update the sprawling national rail system.

"We're talking about upgrading a brake system that is from the Civil War era," Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg told the Associated Press. "It's not too much to ask these companies to improve their braking systems in the event of an accident so fewer cars are derailing."

Railroads have been working to implement Positive Train Control (PTC) and other safety measures for years, but numerous delays prompted lawmakers to agree to several deadline extensions. The updates needed are widespread, and the public appetite for such reform is generally whetted only when such accidents occur, as The Christian Science Monitor previously reported:

Congress has also passed a bill to help the Department of Transportation update safety technology for railroads nationwide, but as of the December 2015 deadline for installing PTC, the department told Congress only 29 percent of commuter rails had successfully done so. The department estimated that full installation would not be possible until 2020.

Environmentalists used the most recent derailment to reiterate their view that oil – particularly the highly flammable oil this train was carrying – should not be carried by train, especially along the scenic vistas of the well-used Columbia River.

A federal report released Thursday suggested Union Pacific had conducted an inspection of the railroad shortly before the accident but failed to find the bolts that had rusted and broken, leading to a derailment and 14-hour oil fire. 

Rail consultant Steven Ditmeyer said heavy cargo such as oil can place too much pressure on railways as "sheared-off" bolts loosen. The rails can then separate, leading to derailment and accidents. 

"We need more rail safety, that's for sure," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York told Bloomberg.

State officials have called for a halt on all railroad oil transport in Oregon. Congress does have several bills at ready that would require railroad companies to use updated old cars or contribute to an emergency fund if they ship cargo by rail, Bloomberg reported.

Union Pacific responded by increasing its inspections from every 18 months to every three months. The report did not find any non-compliance with the train's speed or cargo loads. 

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