In August 2014, PHMSA released its proposed rulemaking on enhanced tank car standards. Amid the exhaustive detail on jacket thicknesses, speed limits and enhanced braking, it became clear that a key component of improving rail safety was almost nowhere to be found in the new rules: track integrity.
The recent accident in West Virginia – although its cause is still unknown – throws the spotlight, once again, on track integrity. Speed has been ruled out as a cause, as the train was going at 33mph in a 50mph zone. Initial investigations into another recent derailment in Lynchburg, where the train was traveling at 24mph in a 25 mph zone – showed up 20 defects on the railway throughout the city, raising concerns about track infrastructure, and ruled out human error or rail car defects.
In addition, investigations are still underway into the causes of other derailments, such as the Aliceville accident in 2013, but Federal Railroad Administration figures show that in 2013, the two leading causes of train accidents were human-related (39%) or track-related (31%).
So while the proposed rules continue to focus on tank cars, they do so while ignoring the 800 pound gorilla in the room and the missing piece of the puzzle: supporting track integrity, and keeping the trains on the tracks.