Fiery Iowa derailment caused by broken rail, poor repairs

(MGN)

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Federal investigators determined that a broken rail caused the fiery 2017 train derailment in northwest Iowa that released 322,000 gallons of ethanol.

The National Transportation Safety Board ruled Tuesday that Union Pacific's maintenance was inadequate before the March 2017 derailment near Graettinger, Iowa, and Federal Railroad Administration inspectors didn't do enough to identify flaws in the track.

No injuries were reported in connection with the derailment in a rural area about 160 miles northwest of Des Moines that caused at least $4 million in damage. Five of the 20 derailed tankers plunged into Jack Creek.

The NTSB said Omaha, Nebraska-based Union Pacific should strengthen its track maintenance and inspection program, especially on rail lines that carry hazardous materials, such as ethanol, to help prevent future derailments. The agency also recommended that the FRA improve its training for its inspectors

The train in this derailment was carrying ethanol for export that had not been denatured by adding chemicals, the NTSB said. The agency wants to study whether it's safer to transport ethanol before it is denatured.

Union Pacific spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza said the railroad cooperated with investigators during the review and would evaluate the findings.

"Union Pacific will continue working diligently to identify and implement improvements to inspection and maintenance programs across our system," Espinoza said.

An FRA spokesman said that agency will review the NTSB findings and issue a written response within 90 days.

After the derailment, 14 of the 20 derailed tanker cars released ethanol. The resulting fire took more than 2½ days to burn itself out.

About 400 feet of track and the trestle bridge were destroyed.

The derailed cars were considered by federal investigators as older, less sturdy tankers of the type being phased out over the next several years.

Federal rules enacted in 2015 call for replacing or retrofitting the aging, soda can-shaped rail tankers by 2029, although most would have to come off the tracks sooner. Those that carry ethanol would have to be replaced by 2023.

The NTSB reiterated one of its previous recommendations for regulators to adopt a more detailed schedule for replacing older tank cars with intermediate goals before 2023.

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