TRI-CITIES, TN (WJHL) – Federal railroad safety inspectors documented more than 700 defects on the CSX trains and tracks that run through Erwin, Johnson City and Kingsport over a two-year period, according to our analysis of CSX inspection records linked to the company’s local train yards. We obtained the federal inspection records through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The Federal Railroad Administration believes there’s the potential for every defect to become serious if not corrected. In fact, they’re called defects to begin with because at one time in history they were known to cause derailments, according to the FRA.
The FRA’s inspection process is intended to prevent accidents, injuries or fatalities. Through that process, records show federal railroad safety inspectors documented hundreds of CSX defects in our region in 2014 and 2015.
Inspectors identified more than two dozen issues alone involving reported defects that were not repaired, according to federal records.
Inspectors also identified other issues, including a handful of problems with the main track itself, hazardous oil leaks on the locomotives and inoperative brakes, records revealed. Some visits found zero problems, while others found more defects than actual units inspected, according to the federal documents.
David Clarke is the director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.
“The goal of inspections is to make sure that we have safe conditions at all times,” Clarke said. “We have an expression or saying in the railroad industry that rules are written in blood.”
The former railroad inspector said although any track defect could cause a derailment, most of the time the risk is relatively low.
“It does present danger. I mean the train could derail if it encounters that condition. Now, there’s also the concept of risk,” he said. “It’s far riskier to get in your car and drive to the local store than it is to have a railroad in your backyard.”
Federal accident records show CSX trains were involved in more rail equipment accidents over the last three years in Tennessee than any other rail company. One of those reported derailments occurred in Erwin, according to federal data.
“Safety is a way of life at CSX,” CSX Corporate Communications representative Kristin Seay said in a statement. “We place the highest priority on the safety of the communities in which we operate over our 23-state rail network, including Tennessee. Our goal is zero accidents and injuries and ensuring the continued reliability of freight rail service across our 21,000 mile rail system. CSX spends more than $1 billion annually to improve and maintain track, bridges, signal systems, equipment and operations to keep customers’ shipments moving safely and reliably.”
In addition to the company’s regularly required inspections, CSX says it works with the FRA to quickly identify all federal findings and fix any issues in a timely manner.
“Among our efforts, CSX regularly inspects our infrastructure, including tracks, roadbed, signals and other structures necessary for safe, reliable transportation,” Seay said. “Trained track inspectors conduct visual inspections using hi-rail vehicles at least twice per week. We also inspect tracks using advanced ultrasonic and induction testing to identify potential internal rail defects, in compliance with all applicable regulations. Additionally, CSX deploys sophisticated trackside equipment that examines passing freight trains to look for potential issues, including overheated axles that might damage the railroad, overweight locomotives or freight cars and a detector that measures individual wheel weights and vertical impact forces that might exert unusual stresses on the rails, enabling us to detect and correct such issues quickly.”
CSX said its employee training, technology deployment, infrastructure investment and inspection protocols typically exceed federal standards.
“In addition to our own internal assessments, CSX also reviews the proposed exceptions and violations to perform an additional layer of trend analysis to identify areas where CSX needs to take proactive measures to continually improve safety and compliance,” Seay said. “CSX’s commitment to its quality and compliance processes reflects the urgency we place on maintaining safe conditions in all aspects of our operations.”
Clark said the end goal is to prevent accidents, injuries or worse.
“We have the federal oversight to ensure that everybody plays by the rules,” he said. “We try to minimize the risk and that’s part of the regulatory philosophy.”
Dale Foster lives along a stretch of CSX railroad in Unicoi County. CSX closed its nearby Erwin yard more than a year ago, but trains still make their way through the “Valley Beautiful,” just not as many.
No matter the number or the size, the engines and their cargo don’t concern Foster.
“I’m not going to sit and worry about something that hasn’t happened yet,” Foster said. “It’s just one of those things that you have to live with. It’s a chance you take.”
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