The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable cause of an Amtrak (National Railroad Passenger Corporation) passenger train derailment was the BNSF Railway Company's (BNSF) inadequate response to multiple reports of rough track conditions that were subsequently attributed to excessive concrete crosstie abrasion. Contributing to the accident was the Federal Railroad Administration's failure to provide adequate track safety standards for concrete crossties. The abrasion allowed the outer rail to rotate outward and create a wide gage track condition.
"This is a case where the railroad failed to respond appropriately to warnings of a track problem and where Federal requirements could have provided strong guidance to prevent this accident," said NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker. "The Safety Board will continue to push regulators to take responsibility to make sure all safety measures are in place and acted upon."
On April 3, 2005, a westbound Amtrak train, consisting of a single locomotive unit and four passenger cars, derailed on the BNSF Railway Company's Northwest Division. The train was traveling through a cut section of the Columbia River Gorge near Home Valley, Washington. The train remained upright; however, the cars came to rest leaning against the outside curved embankment. Of the 115 persons aboard, 30 people sustained minor injuries.
The investigation determined that there were 19 consecutive concrete crossties that exhibited rail seat abrasions at the point of derailment. The abrasions created voids between the bottom of the rail base and the top of the concrete crossties, which allowed the rail to deflect downward and rotate outward under load. This rotation of the rail resulted in a gage widening as trains passed over the area and allowed wheels on the Amtrak train to drop between the rails.
There are no Federal standards specific to concrete crossties in the Track Safety Standards for Classes of Track 1 through 5 that are similar to those standards for Classes of Track 6 and higher (used for higher speed operations). The track where the accident occurred was designated as FRA Class 4, with maximum allowable operating speeds of 60 mph for freight trains and 80 mph for passenger trains, the Board's report states. Because of geographical characteristics and track curvatures, the maximum allowable operating speeds through the derailment area were 55 mph for freight trains and 60 mph for passenger trains.
The Safety Board is concerned about the lack of Federal requirements to help inspectors identify when concrete crossties on certain classes of track have deteriorated to unsafe levels. The seriousness of this accident highlights the need for the FRA to ensure adequate safety standards exist for concrete crossties in all track structures.
As a result of this investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board made the following safety recommendations:
To the Federal Railroad Administration:
Extend to all classes of track safety standards for concrete crossties that address at a minimum the following: limits for rail seat abrasion, concrete crosstie pad wear limits, missing or broken rail fasteners, loss of appropriate toeload pressure, improper fastener configurations, and excessive lateral rail movement.
To the BNSF Railway Company:
As part of your track inspector audit program, determine whether inspectors are provided adequate track time to perform their duties, and take corrective action if necessary.
To the Association of American Railroads and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association and the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance of Way Association:
Using the circumstances of the April 3, 2005, accident near Home Valley, Washington, emphasize to your members through your publications, web site, and conferences, as appropriate, the need to establish inspection guidelines for track inspectors that address the problems and characteristics unique to concrete crossties for all classes of track. As your members develop these guidelines, encourage them to consider the elements in 49 Code of Federal Regulations Part 213, Track Safety Standards, for concrete crossties for Classes of Track 6 and higher.
A synopsis of the Board's report, including the probable cause and recommendations, is available on the Board's website, www.ntsb.gov. The Board's full report will be available on the website in several weeks.