Train Derails in New Mexico, Releases Hazmat

Train Derails in New Mexico, Releases Hazmat

The National Transportation Safety Board issued the following assessment of a train derailment last month where four cars released liquified petroleum gas. Here’s NTSB’s preliminary findings on the incident.

On April 26, about 12:37 p.m. local time, westbound BNSF Railway (BNSF) mixed-freight train H-BELPHX1-25 derailed 35 railcars at milepost 178.6 on the Southwest Division near Manuelito, New Mexico. (See figure.) The derailed equipment included six tank cars containing propane—a type of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and hazardous material transported under pressure.[1] Four of these tank cars were breached and released their contents, which ignited. A fifth LPG tank car was exposed to the fire and released vapor through its pressure relief device.[2]

The local fire department ordered a 2-mile evacuation; 52 people were evacuated, and Interstate 40 was closed in both directions. The local fire department chose to allow the LPG tank cars to burn overnight, and the fires were extinguished on April 27. The evacuation and road closure were lifted on April 28. No injuries were reported. Visibility conditions at the time of the derailment were daylight and clear; weather conditions were 61°F with a 20-mph wind and no precipitation.

Train movements near the derailment site were authorized by signal indications with an overlaid positive train control system and were coordinated by the BNSF Network Operations Center in Fort Worth, Texas.[3] The maximum authorized speed near the derailment site was 70 mph; the train was traveling about 53 mph at the time of the derailment.[4]

Also Read: NSTB Assesses Texas Hazmat Derailment

Train H-BELPHX1-25 consisted of 3 head-end locomotives, 97 railcars, and 1 distributed power unit (an additional locomotive) at the rear of the train. It was crewed by a conductor and an engineer. The train originated in Belen, New Mexico, on April 26, and was destined for Phoenix, Arizona. The derailed LPG tank cars that released material were U.S. Department of Transportation Specification 112J340W (a type of pressure tank car commonly known as a DOT-112).[5] They were equipped with ceramic fiber thermal protection blankets, tank jackets, and full head shields.[6] Each derailed tank car was carrying about 30,000 gallons of LPG.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent investigators to the scene to support the Federal Railroad Administration’s investigation. The FRA is leading the investigation of the derailment and will determine its probable cause; the NTSB will focus only on the performance of the DOT-112 tank cars and emergency response actions.

Also Read: LPG Fires: Sometimes its About Perspective

While on scene, the NTSB examined the track and derailed tank cars. The NTSB will continue to assist the FRA in the examination of the tank car parts recovered from the derailment scene, including top fittings assemblies, pressure relief devices, and samples of shell material and thermal protection blanket. The NTSB’s future investigative activity will focus on recovered physical evidence, analysis of factors affecting tank car performance, and the emergency response to the hazardous materials release and fire.

Because the FRA rather than the NTSB is collecting information from organizations involved in the derailment investigation, the NTSB did not establish parties.[7] 

In related news, the U.S. Department of Transportation is increasing certification requirements for rail dispatchers and signal employees.

FRA announced two final rules that will require railroads to develop certification and training programs for train dispatchers and signal employees. Unlike with conductors and locomotive engineers, there have previously been no federal regulations mandating specific training requirements, safety and knowledge checks, and verification of safety records for dispatchers and signal employees.

These final rules address this gap in rail safety and will help ensure that certified dispatchers and signal employees are qualified and fit for duty, FRA says. They also build on FRA actions to increase rail safety and better protect rail workers and communities, including last month’s final rule regarding train crew size safety requirements.

Under the final rules, railroads must submit certification programs for FRA approval that will evaluate the knowledge, skills, and prior safety records of dispatchers, who allocate and assign track use and route trains, and signal employees, who install, repair, and maintain signal systems that direct train movements. In addition, these certification programs will help ensure that dispatchers and signal employees periodically receive training on railroad safety and operating rules and practices as well as on new systems and technology.

[1] The LPG was shipped as UN1075, liquefied petroleum gas (propane), a Division 2.1 flammable gas. See Title 49 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 173.115 for the regulatory definition of a Division 2.1 flammable gas. ​

[2] Pressure relief devices are spring-loaded valves designed to open if the pressure in a tank rises above a design threshold.

[3] A positive train control system enforces speed limits and prevents a train from passing through a signal that requires it to stop. Federal requirements for positive train control systems are established in 49 CFR 236.1005.

[4] Authorized speeds were set by timetable.

[5] The DOT-112 specification is established in 49 CFR Part 179.

[6] (a) A thermal protection blanket is a protective wrap or coating meant to slow the movement of heat into a tank car and improve its survivability during a fire. (b) Jackets hold thermal protection material in place. (c) Head shields are tank car features designed to the protect the tank head from punctures.[7] Parties to NTSB investigations are defined in 49 CFR 831.11.

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