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Broken rail caused 2017 derailment

NTSB said Union Pacific Railroad’s maintenance was inadequate

October 31, 2018
Amy H. Peterson - Staff Writer ( , Estherville News

A broken rail caused the fiery 2017 train derailment near Graettinger that released 322,000 gallons of denatured ethanol on March 10, 2017, according to federal officials.

Five of the 20 derailed tankers plunged into Jack Creek. The accident was investigated by the Federal Railroad Administration, Union Pacific Railroad, The Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, and Iowa Emergency Management of Palo Alto County.

According to the event recorder, the equivalent of a black box in rail engines, the train was traveling at 28 miles per hour. Two trains and 20 cars crossed the bridge. The engineer applied the emergency brake at 12:50 a.m.

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Investigators identified three safety issues: Union Pacific's track maintenance and inspection, the Federal Railway Association's track inspection oversight, and the benefits of transporting denatured vs. nondenatured ethanol.

Just 2.5 hours and less than 20 miles from the accident, the equipment and brake were tested at Green Plains, LLC in Superior, and no problems were found.

After the accident, brake testing revealed good integrity of the train brake system, according to the report.

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Investigators said the rail broke under the train at the fourth car behind the locomotives, and the problem impacted the wheel treads and progressively worsened.

The FRA found that four inspections from March, 2015 to December, 2016 found marginal tie conditions and some defective conditions with the inspection reports emphasizing risk due to the movement of ethanol on the tracks.

The FRA recommended no civil penalties to Union Pacific or any other entity.

Inspections after the accident in May, 2017 found 78 defective track and tie conditions with 51 defective crossties. No civil penalties were recommended for this condition, either.

The FRA report said Union Pacific was not maintaining the Estherville subdivision of its track, and supervisors were not ensuring defective crosstie conditions were identified and remediated.

Erik Mueller, Ph.D., P.E., examined the metallurgy of the tracks themselves.

Mueller stated in his report, "The train derailed at a broken south rail on the west approach prior to the timber bridge[a] worn rail with degraded supports leads to higher stress. [This] could lead to risk of rail head failure."

Investigators said after reviewing the post-accident damages and other factors, more scientific data is needed to understand the safety benefits of possibly transporting ethanol in its undenatured form.

The tank cars also presented an issue as investigators stated many of the train's cars were not DOT-117 compliant, and the company was slow to replace cars in its aging fleet.

Fuel ethanol is currently the top hazardous material transported by rail.

See the complete findings on our website:



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