Documents released as part of a federal investigation shed light on factors leading up to the 2014 Lynchburg crude oil train derailment, but don’t point to the actual cause of the incident.
A report by the National Transportation Safety Board shows rail problems near where the CSX Transportation Inc. train derailed in downtown Lynchburg on April 30, 2014, sending three tankers into the James River and igniting an explosion.
The report, released Thursday, breaks down facts of the days, inspections and moments leading up to the derailment, as well as the emergency response that followed, but stops short of providing an explanation of the incident that shook Lynchburg almost 16 months ago.
“It’s not the conclusion of the investigation. The investigation is still ongoing. There is no analysis of these facts,” said Keith Holloway, NTSB acting chief of public affairs.
No official timeline has been made for the next and last phase of the investigation, but Holloway guessed it would be another few months. The NTSB generally has said investigations finish in about 18 months.
Holloway said this investigation has been slowed somewhat by the several other rail investigations NTSB has ongoing.
Holloway said these documents are “the majority of the factual information that we have collected at this point.”
“The factual information will be analyzed and from the analysis of that information probable cause will be determined,” he said.
The report said the train was traveling about 24 miles per hour in an area with a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour. The cars were not overloaded, the report said.
From January to April 2014, inspectors found 53 defects. Thirteen were found in April of that year.
“There is a history of defects in that curve and it did trigger our system to — for rail replacement and it was scheduled for the rail replacement,” Brad Spencer, CSX engineer of rail service, told investigators, according to the transcript.
A rail defect was found the day before 17 cars of the 104-car train derailed, and the report mentioned a “rail failure” found in January 2014 near the point of derailment.
According to the report, markings indicated a break in the rail head came near where the rail had been temporarily repaired after a “failure” was found in January of that year.
The News & Advance previously reported an inspection revealed a rail defect a day before the derailment. The April 29, 2014, test data showed a “20 percent transverse detail fracture.”
Repair for that fracture was scheduled for May 1, the report said. A new rail was set to be installed in three weeks, the report said.
A CSX spokesman declined to comment about the rail issues other than to say the company’s track inspection requirements “meet or exceed” legal standards.
“As I mentioned, because there is still an active NTSB investigation underway it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to comment on a specific aspect of the information released yesterday,” Rob Doolittle, a CSX spokesman, said in an email.
The report also gives a look inside the driver’s seat as engineers discovered they may have a problem.
“As the crew looked back to the north … they observed ‘a very large amount’ of smoke on the north side of their train about 30 cars back, whereupon they announced ‘emergency’ on the dispatcher’s radio channel and notified the Lynchburg yardmaster of the situation via radio, as well,” the report said.
“Shortly thereafter, the two member train crew departed the locomotive concerned for their safety and walked to the nearest highway-rail grade crossing,” the report said.
While it didn’t take long for emergency responders to determine at least some of the tankers contained crude oil, they didn’t know for sure whether all the tankers contained the same materials, according to the transcript of an NTSB investigation interview with Lynchburg Fire Department Battalion Chief Robert Lipscomb.
Because first responders weren’t sure whether CSX or Norfolk Southern owned the track, they contacted both companies, the transcript said.
A Norfolk Southern representative was on scene within 45 minutes and said the track didn’t belong to the company. A CSX representative took about two hours to arrive, the transcript said.
Lipscomb said in the transcript he wanted to know about the engineer; the number of the cars; whether the contents were uniform; whether the locomotive was running; and other information to make decisions about how best to move forward.
“I felt, from an incident commander’s perspective that … two hours was a little bit long,” Lipscomb had said.
Lipscomb told investigators he thought the process could be better streamlined to get information to emergency responders more quickly.
“And I’m not saying that anybody did anything wrong. I’m just saying that it kind of was frustrating from my perspective, that I needed it,” the transcript read.
Emergency responders have said the information flow has improved since the incident. The Federal Railroad Administration has ordered rail companies to provide the state emergency response commissions with frequency, volume and routes for Bakken crude oil movements.
“I think the greatest things that we have gotten out of this incident or as a result of this incident, not just for us but statewide, were better communication from the railroad as far as product that is coming down the rail, how often it’s coming,” Jason Campbell, Lynchburg’s deputy fire chief said about a year after the derailment.
No injuries were reported in the incident.