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BNSF Railway Train Derailment and Subsequent Train Collision, Release of Hazardous Materials, and Fire. December 30, 2013 - Opening Statement
Christopher A. Hart
NTSB Boardroom and Conference Center

Good morning and welcome to the Boardroom of the National Transportation Safety Board. I am Christopher Hart, and it is my privilege to serve as Chairman of the NTSB. Joining me are Vice Chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr, Member Robert Sumwalt, and Member Earl Weener. I would especially like to thank Member Sumwalt for serving as the board member on the scene of the accident that we will be discussing today.

Today, we meet in open session, as required by the Government in the Sunshine Act, to consider the derailment, collision, and subsequent flammable liquid release and fire, on December 30, 2013, near Casselton, North Dakota.

The event began with the derailment of 13 cars of a westbound grain train, with an eastbound crude oil train fast approaching on an adjacent track. The first grain car that derailed, which was the 45th car in the train, fouled the adjacent track. The two trains were already traveling alongside each other before the oil train crew realized that the grain car had derailed, and seconds later, the oil train collided with the derailed car.

In the collision, nearly half a million gallons of crude oil were released from 18 of 20 derailed tank cars. Oil spilled from punctured cars and from damaged bottom valves and top fittings, fueling a large pool fire that engulfed intact cars. Their tank shells weakened from the heat, and pressure inside them increased, until oil vapor erupted in violent fireballs through thermal tears.

More than 1,500 people were evacuated from their homes. Fortunately, the event occurred nearly a mile from Casselton, and residents suffered no loss of life or serious injury.

With the front door of the lead locomotive damaged, the crew of the oil train escaped through its rear door very shortly before it was engulfed in flames.

Since the time of this accident, Congress and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) have acted to demand a higher safety standard.

More specifically, PHMSA created a new, safer tank car specification known as DOT-117. The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, known as the FAST Act, mandates the replacement or retrofitting of DOT-111 tank cars that are used to transport flammable liquids with DOT-117 tank cars.  PHMSA then issued new rules to implement the FAST Act mandates. PHMSA also mandated operating speed constraints and the use of advanced brake systems in certain circumstances.

Together these changes will help to decrease the number of tank cars involved in such collisions, and will help to prevent such fiery releases due to forces that DOT-117 tank cars are able to withstand better than DOT-111 tank cars.

Yet the deadlines for replacing variants of the DOT-111 tank car, for carriage of various flammable liquids, fall along a timeline that extends from 2018 to 2029, leaving Americans at heightened risk for years to come.

Furthermore, there are no intermediary progress milestones, and no requirement for public reporting of progress in complying with PHMSA’s new regulations. While few DOT-111 tank cars remain in crude oil service, a vast fleet of these less safe tank cars continues in service for ethanol and other flammable liquids.

Without progress milestones or transparency, progress toward removing or retrofitting these tank cars has been slow. BNSF has announced that it will offer incentives for ethanol shippers to choose DOT-117 tank cars, starting in April, and there is no reason that other railroads cannot work together with shippers to move faster than the speed of PHMSA’s regulation.

In a moment, staff will present details of what led to the Casselton derailment, collision, and fire. You will hear that an axle broke on the grain train, and that our investigators found that the axle had manufacturing defects. Commendably, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) worked collaboratively with the manufacturer of the axle, Standard Steel, to identify and remove from service other axles that might have the same defects.

In response to our urgent safety recommendation, the AAR has also moved to require nondestructive testing of secondhand use axles. Such testing was already required for new axles.

These actions have further helped to eliminate scenarios such as the accident scenario that we will discuss today.

However, staff will also describe the insufficient safety measures in place to protect the crew of the oil train. Specifically, only a single buffer car separated the oil train’s two head-end locomotives from its 104 tank cars. The purpose of buffer cars is to separate the train crew from hazardous materials, in case of a release.

And staff will present information from a study of advanced brake systems that the NTSB undertook as a result of the Casselton accident, offering a glimpse of a safer future. Such systems would not have prevented the collision, because only a few seconds passed between the time the oil train crew saw the derailed grain car and the moment of collision. However, advanced brake systems can apply brakes faster, thereby lowering train speeds more quickly, shortening stopping distances and reducing the overall severity for many other accident scenarios.

Taken together, the actions of the Congress, regulators, the AAR, the manufacturer of the accident axles, and the other parties to this investigation have made another Casselton-like event much less likely. Through this accident, we also learned more about promising technological advances that can further improve railroad safety.

However, the fact remains that as we consider today’s investigation, trains carrying flammable liquids in DOT-111 tank cars continue to roll through America’s towns and cities. Progress is slow toward implementing the new DOT-117 standard, and because of this fact, the NTSB’s Most Wanted List once again includes rail tank car safety, under “Ensure the Safe Shipment of Hazardous Materials.”

None of our new recommendations today will touch on the replacement of rail tank cars. The NTSB is already on record as supporting intermediary milestones and transparency as regards the deadlines in the FAST act and in PHMSA’s regulations.

The NTSB is currently investigating two additional accidents involving flammable liquids in variants of DOT-111 tank cars. It is our hope that, despite all the progress to date, no future catastrophic tank car failure will give us reason to reiterate the importance of milestones and transparency in another board meeting between now and 2029.

Now Acting Managing Director Dennis Jones will introduce the staff. Mr. Jones.