The National Transportation Safety Board determined today that the probable cause of a Union Pacific train derailment was the failure of a set of joint bars that had remained in service with undetected and uncorrected defects because of the railroad’s ineffective track inspection procedures and inadequate management oversight.
The Safety Board found that the joint bars at the point of the derailment had broken before the arrival of the accident train, which allowed the rail to become misaligned. Inspections of jointed rail using rail defect detection or track geometry cars are inadequate to identify the types of joint bar defects that led to this accident, the Board said. The Board added that despite inadequate inspection methods, enough joint bar defects were found to demonstrate that defective joint bars were a frequent and persistent problem.
On Saturday, May 27, 2000, 33 of the 113 cars making up eastbound Union Pacific Railroad train QFPLI-26 derailed near Eunice, Louisiana. Of the derailed cars, 15 contained hazardous materials and 2 contained hazardous materials residue. The derailment resulted in a release of hazardous materials with explosions and fire. About 3,500 people were evacuated from the surrounding area, which included some of the business area of Eunice. No one was injured during the derailment of the train or the subsequent release of hazardous materials.
All the hazardous materials involved in this accident were being transported in tank cars. The derailment and the resultant fire and explosions destroyed all of the cars that were in the general pileup.
In the report, the Board states that although the frequency of the Union Pacific track inspections was adequate, the manner in which they were conducted was not. Because Union Pacific used a moving inspection vehicle to inspect the track, inspectors could not adequately see the joint bars and thus were able to detect only a small proportion of the cracked or broken joint bars on the subdivision. The result was that defective joint bars that should have been replaced were allowed to remain in service. Furthermore, if Union Pacific management had thoroughly examined track inspection reports, they would have been aware that track inspections were not always identifying joint bar defects in time to prevent future failures and potential risk to trains.
The Board noted that there was no evidence of alcohol or drug use by the train crew. Also weather, train crew qualifications, and the operation of the train were not factors in this accident. Neither was the mechanical condition of the cars in the train nor the signal system in the accident area a contributing factor in the derailment. In addition, the emergency responders to the accident responded quickly and handled the accident effectively, the Board noted.
As a result of this accident investigation, The National Transportation Safety Board made the following safety recommendations to the Federal Railroad Administration, the Union Pacific Railroad, and the Association of American Railroads:
- Modify your track inspection program to incorporate the volume of hazardous materials shipments made over the tracks in determining frequency and type of track inspections;
- Change your track inspections programs to ensure that managers are making use of all available information about track conditions, including railroad and Federal Railroad Administration track inspection reports, to identify trends or problem areas and to monitor the effectiveness of daily track inspections;
- Revise the guidance in your Circular No. OT-55, Recommended Railroad Operating Practices for Transportation of Hazardous Materials, to recommend that all key routes be subjected to periodic track inspections that will identify cracks or breaks in joint bars.
A copy of the report’s conclusions and recommendations is available on the Safety Board’s website. The complete report will be available on the website in about a month. Printed copies of the report can be purchased from the National Technical Information Service (800) 533-NTIS.