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On May 6, 2015, at 7:21 a.m. central daylight time, six cars (81 through 86) of a BNSF Railway unit train derailed near Heimdal, North Dakota. The train—three locomotives, two buffer cars, and 107 tank cars—was carrying crude oil. At the time of the derailment, the train was traveling at 45 mph. After the derailment, the train traveled about 4.8 miles before stopping. The train separated from the cars after car 81 impacted a highway-rail grade crossing at milepost 149.01 about 1 mile east of Heimdal. Five of the derailed tank cars breached and released about 96,400 gallons of crude oil, which fueled a fire and a large, toxic smoke plume. (See figure 1.) About 30 people were evacuated from Heimdal and the surrounding area. The estimated damage was $5 million. At the time of the accident, the sky was overcast and the temperature was 57°F.
TO THE FEDERAL RAILROAD ADMINISTRATION: Research and evaluate wheel impact load thresholds to find remedial actions that address the mechanical condition of tank cars used in high-hazard flammable trains.
Original recommendation transmittal letter:
Open - Acceptable Response
Heimdal, ND, United States
Railroad Accident Brief: BNSF Railway Crude Oil Unit Train Derailment, Heimdal, North Dakota
Addressee(s) and Addressee Status:
FRA (Open - Acceptable Response)
Safety Recommendation History
On June 28, 2018, you told us that you are collaborating with the railroad industry to determine the reliability of various wayside defect detection equipment to inform industry standards and allow railroads to select the equipment that best suits their operations. As you explained, wheel condition can potentially be accurately and reliably assessed when a variety of tools are used together. You also stated that you have no plans to mandate any remedial actions because the cost of revising the current regulation would outweigh the benefit. We note that you are also working with the AAR to identify and implement industry standards for remedial actions once the true mechanism causing defects, such as vertical split rim wheel failures, is understood. As the AAR explained in an April 16, 2018, letter, “the industry has shown that a high kip reading and wheel rim thickness of one inch or less together are a predictor of a potential broken wheel.” We are aware that, in January 2016, the AAR amended its rules to authorize the removal of wheels with a dynamic load of 50 kips or more in combination with a rim thickness of 1 inch or less. You indicated that, due to the AAR’s rules revision, you had no plan to revise Safety Advisory 2015-01. Pending completion of your research and development of remedial actions, Safety Recommendation R-17-32 is classified OPEN--ACCEPTABLE RESPONSE. We urge you to reconsider your position on developing the recommended rulemaking; pending that action, Safety Recommendation R-17-33 is classified “Open—Unacceptable Response.” We note your ongoing collaboration with the AAR and encourage you to update and distribute your safety advisory accordingly with the information in the AAR’s rules. Such action will provide another tool for the industry to use and would be responsive to Safety Recommendation R-17-34, which is classified "Open—Acceptable Response.”
-From Ronald L. Batory, Administrator: Wheel Impact Load Detector (WILD) readings are helpful, but insufficient to determine the condition and compliance of a particular wheel or wheel set. Further, mandating remedial actions based on WILD readings would be ineffective. However, wheel condition can potentially be accurately and reliably assessed when a variety of tools are used together. FRA and the railroad industry are collaborating on ways to test and determine the reliability of various wayside defect detection equipment. The results of this research will inform industry standards, and allow railroads to select the equipment that best suits their operations. FRA will also work with AAR to identify and implement industry standards for remedial actions once the true mechanism causing defects, such as vertical split rim wheel failures, is understood. In its letter to the NTSB dated April 16, 2018, AAR explained that "research shows that kip readings are not an indication of imminent wheel failure"; nevertheless: ... the industry has shown that a high kip reading and wheel rim thickness of one inch or less together are a predictor of a potential broken wheel. Consequently, in January 2016, AAR rules were amended to authorize the removal of wheels with a dynamic load of 50 kips or more in combination with a rim thickness of one inch or less. Because AAR has changed its rules accordingly, FRA does not see the need to revise Safety Advisory 2015-01 . It must also be noted that requiring the use of wayside defect detection equipment, or calibration of the equipment, would require the current regulation to be revised. The cost of this revision would, based on the extremely low number of accidents that could be prevented by accurate and reliable wayside defect equipment, far outweigh the benefit. Therefore, FRA respectfully requests that the NTSB close Safety Recommendations R-17-3 2, R-17-33, andR-17-34. I appreciate your interest in these important safety issues.
-From Karl Alexy, Director, Office of Safety Analysis, Federal Railroad Administration: Thank you for the January 11, 2018, report, BNSF Railway Crude Oil Unit Train Derailment, RAB-17112, Heimdal, North Dakota, sent to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) concerning, in part, the National Transportations Safety Board (NTSB) Safety Recommendations R-17-32 and R-17-33 to FRA, and R-17-34 to FRA and the Association of American Railroads. Improving safety is FRA's top priority, and FRA will continue to work to make rail shipments as safe as possible. FRA is committed to working with the NTSB to prevent future accidents and save lives. FRA welcomes and will consider all recommendations that will further this goal. If you have further questions or concerns, please contact Mr. Kenton Kilgore, Program Analyst.
On December 29, 2017, the NTSB adopted its brief BNSF Railway Crude Oil Unit Train Derailment, RAB-17/12. The details of this accident investigation and the resulting safety recommendations may be found in the attached report, which can also be accessed at http://www.ntsb.gov. Among the Safety Recommendations are three issued to the Federal Railroad Administration, which can be found on page 11 of the report. The NTSB is vitally interested in these recommendations because they are designed to prevent accidents and save lives. We would appreciate a response within 90 days, detailing the actions you have taken or intend to take to implement these recommendations.
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