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Signal, Inspection Eyed in Train Wreck

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

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A faulty signaling mechanism, missed inspection, and rules for transporting hazardous materials by rail are all under scrutiny as federal safety officials press their investigation into Friday’s freight train derailment in Paulsboro, NJ.

The wreck’s leaking toxic chemicals, however, continued to keep residents from their homes, children out of school, and federal investigators away from the accident scene Tuesday (Dec. 4) for a fifth day.

The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the investigation into the accident, but the U.S. Coast Guard is charged with response and remediation in the case, giving the latter agency final say over access to the scene and evacuation issues.

With that authority, the Coast Guard has ordered a half-dozen area schools closed and the continued evacuation of the 12-block area closest to the derailment location in an industrial suburb south of Philadelphia.

Coast Guard Capt. Kathy Moore and NTSB chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman

U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Kathy Moore meets with NTSB chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman. The Coast Guard has not yet allowed the NTSB team to inspect the accident scene.

Seven cars of an 84-car Conrail train derailed from a low bridge about 7 a.m. Friday (Nov. 30), splitting open one tanker car that contained 25,000 gallons of toxic vinyl chloride. The chemical seeped into Mantua Creek below the bridge and bloomed as a cloud of noxious vapor into the air.

Evacuations were ordered late Friday, and air monitoring showed a spike in vinyl chloride levels over the weekend. Monitoring of air, water and soil is continuing, but as of Tuesday (Dec. 3), the Coast Guard was not allowing anyone—even the 17-member NTSB investigative team—access to the bridge or the wreck.

Inspection Issues

Still, the NTSB investigators have conducted numerous interviews and pored over enough records to give them several red flags that merit further study, agency chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman said in a media briefing.

One of those issues is a recent missed inspection and others that could have been inadequate. Conrail’s bridge plan includes semi-annual structural inspections of the bridge, and those were conducted in May and November. But the company’s plan also calls for quarterly mechanical or movable hardware inspections, and the last such documented inspection was in June, Hersman said.

“For a quarterly inspection, we would have expected to see another inspection of the mechanical parts ... in September of 2012,” she said.  “There is no record of such an inspection.”

Deborah A.P. Hersman - Dec. 3, 2012

The NTSB's Hersman and Investigator In Charge Jim Southworth brief the media on the accident.

Investigators also asked Conrail whether the bridge, which has parts that date to 1873, had been inspected after Hurricane Sandy, which came ashore in New Jersey on Oct. 29, bringing massive storm surges.

The team was told the bridge received “two cursory, visual inspections” on Oct. 30 and 31, according to Hersman. A five-year underwater inspection is next due in 2014.

Faulty Signals

Investigators have also learned of recurring mechanical problems on the old swing bridge, which was the site of a 16-car derailment in 2009.

“We are looking very closely at the mechanical operation of the movable bridge over Mantua Creek,” Hersman said.

Standard operating procedures call for the bridge to remain generally open to recreational vessel traffic from March 1 to Dec. 1, said Hersman. When trains approach during those months, crews must key in a code that closes the bridge's four sliding locking mechanisms and changes the signal from red to green so the train can cross. After the train has cleared the signal, the bridge is supposed to automatically reopen.

On Friday, however, the train encountered the expected red signal, but a visual check showed the bridge was closed rather than open. For several minutes, “the engineer attempted to key in a code that would close and lock the bridge to give him that green signal to proceed,” said Hersman. “He keyed in a code; the signal did not change. It remained red.”

At that point, the conductor got out of the locomotive and walked about 200 feet across the bridge to survey the tracks. “He came back and reported to the engineer that everything looked fine,” Hersman said. The engineer then retried the code several times, but the signal did not change.

At the same time, she said, the system made an automated announcement that the bridge had failed to operate. The engineer then called the dispatcher to request permission to proceed past the red signal. The engineer told the dispatcher that the conductor had gotten out and looked at the bridge. The dispatcher allowed the train to cross.

Paulsboro NJ derailment

Response crews survey the wreckage. Toxic vapors have kept investigators from examining the scene.

After the locomotives and first five cars cleared the bridge, the crew looked back to see the cars derailing.

Trouble Tickets

Conrail’s records show 23 “trouble tickets” (repair orders) related to the bridge since Dec. 1, 2011, Hersman said. Nine tickets had been filed since Oct. 27, some of them related to problems “with the movable part of the bridge and the locking mechanism,” she said.

For example, she noted, at 11:21 p.m.  Nov. 19, a crew walked the bridge and found that it was not locked when it should have been. And at 3:17 a.m.  Nov. 29 (the day before the derailment), an approaching train crew “noted that the bridge was four inches shy of being locked and closed,” Hersman said.

After the crew tried several times to key in the code, the bridge locked and the train crossed. Immediately after it did so, however, the system made an automated announcement that the bridge had failed to operate properly.

Later that morning, Hersman said, two Conrail supervisors spent about two hours working on the system, then closed the trouble ticket.

Procedures Examined

Hersman emphasized that the crew of the derailed train had followed its procedures and rules to the letter. But given the hazardous cargo the train was carrying, she added:  “Whether or not those procedures are adequate or whether they are conservative enough, those are things we are looking at.”

No determination of cause will be made at the scene, and Hersman emphasized that investigators still had been unable to examine the bridge and railcars.

“We still have a lot of work ahead of us,” she said.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Bridges; NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board); Rail; Railcars

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