It’s Union Pacific’s fault. That’s the basic thrust of a preliminary report from federal railroad regulators on Thursday. It investigates why a nearly 100-car oil train partially derailed and caught fire in the Columbia River Gorge on June 3.
OPB's Kate Davidson spoke to Sarah Feinberg, the head of the Federal Railroad Administration to learn more. The following exchange has been edited for clarity and brevity.
You can hear their full conversation by clicking play on the audio player at the top of the article.
Kate Davidson: The FRA issued preliminary findings today, and they state very plainly "that Union Pacific’s failure to maintain its track and track equipment resulted in the derailment." What did you find to be the main cause?
Sarah Feinberg: That’s right. So technically the cause of the derailment, as we found it, was these broken bolts, which led to loosened tie plates, which leads to a wide gauge in the track, which leads to the derailment. So that’s a pretty technical explanation. But when it comes down to it, it's Union Pacific’s failure to maintain its track led to this incident. If they had been properly maintaining their track, this likely could have been avoided.
Davidson: And this is consistent with early findings from Union Pacific and what Oregon state officials have been telling us.
Feinberg: That’s right.
Davidson: You also found that this train had conventional air brakes. Can you describe how the situation might have been different if the train had electronically controlled brakes?
Feinberg: This is really one of the most important findings related to this derailment. There are a couple different kinds of braking systems that can be used on trains. The braking system that Union Pacific is using is an air brake system. It’s basically a Civil War-era braking system. What the federal government has recommended, and basically has said, these oil trains have to have within a couple years, is an electronically controlled braking system.
An air brake system requires the message of the brake to go from one end of the train all the way to the other, and that can typically be a mile. So in other words, that message has to travel a mile in order for all the tank cars to throw their brakes on.
With electronically controlled braking, all the tank cars get the same message at once. So basically, it’s just a much more controlled braking. It’s quicker and it gives the train much more control, tends to lead to fewer cars derailing in an incident and fewer punctures. We believe that brakes would have led to fewer cars derailing and potentially no fire.
Davidson: So 16 cars ending up derailing in this accident.
Feinberg: That’s right.
Davidson: You say that the responsibility for track maintenance lies with Union Pacific. Will you fine them?
Feinberg: It’s a little early to say that. There will be enforcement actions that come out of this incident. I’d say that’s pretty likely, but you have to let the process work its way through.
Davidson: I want to ask you about the people of Moiser because people in the Columbia River Gorge are asking you to keep oil trains out of their backyard. The Oregon Department of Transportation has asked you for a moratorium on oil train traffic through the Gorge over concerns about inadequate inspections. Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley reiterated that call Wednesday. What is your response to them?
Feinberg: Well, look, I understand that his community has been impacted. First of all, I grew up in Charleston, West Virginia, where we had a significant crude derailment just a couple miles from my hometown last year. And crude trains roll by down the hill from my mother’s house. So I understand that the community is alarmed.
But the Federal Railroad Administration’s job is to make sure that we are keeping anything that moves on railroad tracks as safe as it can possibly be. So a moratorium on crude trains sounds like it basically means a conversation needs to be had at the national level about the way we’re supplying energy to the country. Our job as the Federal Railroad Administration is to make sure that anything that is moving is safe.
Davidson: But this isn’t just a question about energy policy. This is also about the adequacy of the inspections. Hal Gard is the administrator for the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Rail Division and says this portion of the track was inspected just weeks before — and not just any inspection, it got the inspection that oil train routes are supposed to get — and nobody saw these broken . If inspections can’t reveal these flaws, how does the agency justify business as usual when it comes to oil train traffic across the country?
Feinberg: Well, inspections can find these kinds of flaws. And look, it is Union’s Pacific’s responsibility to make sure that they are maintaining and inspecting their track to maintain a level of safety. If you’re going to move this product, you’ve got to take the responsibly for moving it safely. We have minimum regulations in place. We require sections of track like this to be inspected at least twice a week. But those are minimum regulations. As with any safety regulation, you can always go above and beyond, and it’s the responsibility of the railroad to do the maintenance that’s needed to make sure that the section of track is safe.
Davidson: What do you say then to someone like Hal Gard at ODOT, the rail administrator, who says, "We inspected this stretch of track on April 27 and we did not see the problem"? What do you say to him about the adequacy of his own inspection?
Feinberg: Well, look, I think what’s more important than ODOT’s inspection on April 27 is the fact that Union Pacific is required to inspect that section of track at least twice a week. So they were there just days before the derailment. We believe that flaws and risks like this can be caught, they need to be caught, and Union Pacific needs to be doing everything they can to catch problems like this before they become derailments.