Federal safety investigators recommended the railroad industry take four measures to improve rail safety based on its findings from two separate 2015 train accidents.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said its recommendations stem from its probe of a railroad accident in Kansas City, Kansas, that killed a Union Pacific employee in September 2015 and an oil train derailment in Heimdal, North Dakota, that released more than 96,000 gallons of crude oil into the environment in May 2015.
In the Kansas accident, a Union Pacific Railroad foreman died after being struck by a remote-controlled train during switching operations at the Armourdale Yard in Kansas City. NTSB investigators determined the probable cause of the accident was the foreman being in the gage of the track while a train switching movement was being performed by another crew.
The NTSB report also said that radio communications and work coordination between the rail crews were inadequate and likely contributed to the deadly accident.
NTSB investigators learned that Union Pacific employees were likely desensitized to critical alerts because of a “cry wolf” situation. Crews received frequent, non-critical, “man-down” alarms that likely reduced the attention and reaction crewmembers made to the actual critical alarms, the NTSB said. A man-down alarm is an audible warning transmitted on the yard’s radio channels indicating that a locomotive operator may be in danger.
The NTSB recommended that Union Pacific Railroad develop and implement a modification to the man-down alarms that would allow workers to differentiate between non-critical alarms and legitimate alarms.
In the North Dakota accident, a broken wheel on a Burlington Northern Santa Fe oil train car caused six of the train’s 107 cars to derail while transporting crude oil.
No injuries or fatalities were reported in connection with the derailment, but all but one of the derailed tank cars breached, spilling more than 96,400 gallons of crude oil. A fire then broke out, forcing the evacuation of about 30 people from the town of Heimdal and the surrounding area due to toxic smoke hazards.
The NTSB determined the left wheel in the second position on car 81 was broken due to a split rim, resulting in multiple stress fractures and a catastrophic failure of the wheel.
The NTSB issued two safety recommendations to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to research and evaluate wheel impact load thresholds and to mandate remedial actions for railroads to avoid or identify mechanical defects identified by wheel impact load detectors.
A third recommendation advised the FRA and the Association of American Railroads to collaborate in evaluating peak load thresholds and to determine remedial actions to address suspected defective wheel conditions in cargo trains hauling high-hazard, flammable loads.