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updated: 3/1/2012 12:29 PM

Reading between the lines of an NTSB death report

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  • Karen Darch

    Karen Darch

  • Tom Weisner

    Tom Weisner

By Karen Darch and Tom Weisner

On Valentine's Day, the National Transportation Safety Board held a public hearing on what caused the 2009 derailment that killed one and injured nine when a Canadian National freight train fell off the rails near Rockford. You wouldn't know it from reading the summary report issued by the NTSB, but it was quite an information-rich gift to the public if you happened to watch the video archives of the proceedings.

Based on the details aired at the NTSB hearing, we certainly know why CN ended up paying $36.2 million to the deceased woman's family. Despite the fact that calls started streaming into 911 at least one full hour before the derailment, a series of safety-related lapses at the railroad insured that the crew was not alerted about a washout of the track bed until the train carrying highly flammable ethanol in 75 tank cars was actually derailing.

Probably the most damning safety lapse involved the inability of CN's headquarters to get through to its Rail Traffic Controller in less than 22 minutes to let him know that the rail bed had washed out. While that controller was ultimately fired, the NTSB hearing highlighted the fact that just weeks before the derailment, CN had made the business decision to cut the number of rail freight controllers handling its freight traffic in Illinois and Iowa. This led to a state of constant work overload -- a systemic safety lapse that CN has apparently not yet remedied by undertaking a workload/staffing assessment.

But most importantly, this NTSB hearing went beyond a focus on CN's negligence and alerted the American public to the fact that fully 69 percent of the nation's rail tank cars, many of which are used to transport highly flammable ethanol, have a known high incidence of breaching failure when involved in derailments. According to the NTSB, the flaws with the tank cars have been known since 1991.

This means that for the last 21 years, the rail freight industry has continued to use tank cars and order new ones even though they are prone to catastrophic failure in a worst-case scenario. The public may wonder how a faulty tank car continues to be the industry choice, as it obviously has been, since the average age of the country's tank car fleet is just eight years old.

But the answer to this question becomes apparent when you know who is writing the "consensus" standards -- the Association of American Railroads, which is the industry's trade association. The AAR, which is empowered by federal regulators to self-regulate, did not revise standards for the involved tank cars until October 2011 -- a full 20 years after their crashworthiness was deemed inadequate by NTSB. According to the NTSB staff, even these new standards are inadequate and would not have changed the tragic outcome of this derailment.

Despite marginally improved standards for new tank cars, the rail industry is willing to leave 40,000 flawed tank cars hauling ethanol and crude oil in service, claiming that a $15,000 per car retrofit is too expensive. We say that 20 years of inaction by the industry should not be rewarded. Federal regulators should direct the industry to retrofit the flawed tank cars before another preventable tragedy occurs. Simply put, the freight rail industry's self-regulation isn't working.

Darch, Barrington village president, and Weisner, mayor of Aurora, are co-chairs of TRAC -- an ad hoc coalition of local governments that was formed in 2008 to protect regional community interests when CN Railroad applied to purchase the EJ&E rail line. Learn more at

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