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Accident Waiting to Happen

Delays in implementing federal rail guidelines likely contributed to Rosedale crash

Photo: Noah Scialom, License: N/A

Noah Scialom

A firefighter in Rosedale after the accident


The May 28 train crash and explosion in Rosedale plays out as these things normally do.

A security video from Eastern Truck and Trailer overlooking the private crossing shows what looks like a trash-packer truck pulling onto the tracks just ahead of the speeding locomotive, which clips the truck’s passenger side on the rear quarter, sending the truck into the underbrush.

Underbrush surrounds the crossing, appearing to obscure the view of both motorist and train engineer, as is common. There is no warning light or gate. Under federal law, none is required at private rail crossings.

The train runs past for another 40 seconds before coming to a stop. Five minutes later comes the flash of explosion, and the camera slumps to focus on the pavement just beneath it.

Investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board looked at evidence for two days before leaving the scene to CSX, the huge freight company whose train and cargo were damaged. The man in the truck, reported to be John Alban Jr., was said to be recovering at Shock Trauma. NTSB investigations typically take a year or more to reach their conclusions.

In a statement, CSX said the chemicals that spilled and/or exploded were under control: “CSX environmental experts continued to work with the Maryland Department of Environment, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and other agencies to clean up products released in the derailment. Air, water and soil sampling was established quickly yesterday, and all results are being shared with public agencies.”

It was all pretty routine, including the move to blame the truck driver. The Sun dug into the truck company’s record and found safety citations.

CSX has a history of accidents too, though, and while its safety record has much improved in recent years, federal regulators are behind in efforts to make and enforce new safety rules Congress mandated five years ago.

CSX is in the midst of an expansion. With increasing cargo coming to Baltimore through a widened Panama Canal, the company reportedly spent $2.3 billion last year on its infrastructure. More and bigger freight trains are in Baltimore’s future.

Yet the Federal Railroad Administration, the lead agency regulating the nation’s rail lines, has written only eight of the 17 new safety regulations required by a law Congress passed in 2008, an audit released in April showed.

Congress passed the Railway Safety Improvement Act in response to several high-profile accidents between 2002 and 2008. The act broadens FRA’s safety responsibilities, and the 17 new rules—covering everything from concrete railroad ties and bridge construction to the “camp cars” railway workers live in during longer jobs in unpopulated areas—are its linchpin.

“FRA has issued 8 of the 17 RSIA-required rules and has made progress on finalizing the remaining 9,” the audit, by the assistant inspector general for railroad, maritime and economic analysis, says. “However, the Agency issued seven of the eight after their statutory deadlines, and has missed the deadlines for six of the remaining nine.”

The audit found that “weaknesses in FRA’s planning for its rulemaking work delayed rule issuance. We also found that FRA did not provide its oversight staff with the guidance, training, and supervision required to oversee compliance with certain RSIA rules.”

The FRA concurred “partially” with the auditor’s six recommendations, but in a response to the audit, sugared up the agency’s record: “2012 was the safest year in rail history,” FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo wrote in a memo to the inspector general. He cited his agency’s “fostering a safety culture evolution toward non-punitive hazard analysis, accident prevention, and innovation.”

Nationally, deaths at railroad crossings dipped below 300 per year in 2008 and have stayed below ever since, hitting a benchmark the FRA had set for itself in the 1990s. In 2012, 233 people died in railroad-crossing accidents. In 2004—the high water mark—there were 371 fatalities.

Since 2010, CSX has been involved in 38 train-on-vehicle incidents in Maryland, according to FRA records. There were four in Baltimore County in each of those years, the data show.

The same statistics show that CSX’s accident rate in 2012 was less than half what it was in 2003. There were 1,924 in 2003 and only 874 in 2012

Highway-rail incidents were down, likewise, from 538 in 2003 to 325 last year. Just 33 people died last year in road-related encounters with CSX trains. The peak year in the last decade was 59, in 2004, according to the data.

But the data are not necessarily accurate. In 2004 a New York Times investigation discovered many train accidents—including fatal train-on-automobile crashes—had not been reported to the FRA in a timely way.

“The analysis found that over the last eight years about 750 fatal accidents were not reported to the [FRA] response center. These accidents were eventually reported to the railroad administration in monthly filings, but that made timely investigations by the federal officials difficult if not impossible,” reporter Walt Bogdanich and his team wrote in a story published on July 11, 2004. The story went on to detail how freight railroads—including CSX—tended to lose or destroy key evidence in grade-crossing accidents.

This helped them beat lawsuits, as they could blame the drivers their trains hit.

The Times also found a former FRA director vacationing with railroad lobbyists, then leaning on safety inspectors who tried to impose fines and other sanctions on railroads. She favored a more collaborative approach, she said.

“Takes a long time to promulgate a rule,” says George A. Gavalla, a former FRA safety official who now works as a consultant on railroad issues—often for plaintiffs in lawsuits against railroads. “It’s a long, drawn-out process, and it’s designed to be that way. It’s more important to get it right than to get it quick.”

Since his time at the agency (which overlaps the time of the Times’ investigation, which quoted him), Gavalla says a few small changes have been made. “It’s basically more of the same, essentially,” he says. “Most of what goes on [is] installation of more automated warning systems [at crossings]—there’s a funding stream for that. Each year so many get built.”

These are only at public roads, he says. Private crossings—like the one where last week’s accident happened—are not covered.

That means drivers across those have only their eyes to guide them. Or, in cases where they can’t see down the tracks because of overgrown bushes, their ears.

“We had a horn rule finalized,” Gavalla says. So now train operators must sound their horns when approaching grade level crossings. But again—only at public crossings.

This is progress, though, says Gavalla: “When I was there, there was no rule.”

See more pictures of aftermath from the Rosedale accident at citypaper.com/rosedale

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