GRAETTINGER, Iowa — National Transportation Safety Board investigators say they have not yet found a clear cause in a Union Pacific unit ethanol train that derailed and caught fire on March 10.
Investigators say that data recovered from the train’s locomotives shows that the train was traveling about 30 mph at the time of the derailment. The engineer had placed the throttle in the idle position about 90 seconds prior to the derailment at approximately 12:50 a.m. on March 10. Black box data shows that just prior to the derailment, he was sounding the horn for an upcoming crossing. At that point, the train went into train-induced emergency brake application and 27 of the cars derailed and caught fire.
NTSB member Robert Sumwalt held a news conference from the scene of the derailment over the weekend. He said that data from the train’s outward and inward-facing cameras did not reveal any flaws on the tracks or inappropriate behavior from the crew. He noted that both men were more than 10 year veterans of Union Pacific, and were very cooperative with the investigation process. Furthermore, a separate train crew that had traveled through the area of the derailment about 12 hours earlier said that they did not notice any flaws along the tracks.
So far, the NTSB’s access to scene of the derailment has been limited by the fires, but the next few days, Sumwalt says, will be very busy.
“As conditions permit, we will look for remarkable damage that will tell the story of why derailment occurred,” Sumwalt says, “Our goal is to not only understand what happened, but why, so we can keep it from happening again.”
Sumwalt did not mince words in implicating the outdated DOT-111 tank cars involved in the crash. They present a danger, he says, because they have no protective outer shell, no thermal protection, and their top and bottom fittings are much less protected than the DOT-117s designed to replace them. These components, Sumwalt said, can “be sheared off during a derailment, which breaches tank and spills product, literally fueling a fire.Yes, [the NTSB] is concerned about continued use of DOT-111 tank cars for transporting flammable materials.”