The United States Congress is not known for its ability to agree on anything. Anything, that is, except for the fact that large railroad companies are 100% incapable of self-regulation.

SMART-TD railroad union gives labor’s perspective

SMART-TD’s National Legislative Director Greg Hynes represented all rail operating crafts before the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee today. He joined NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy, FRA Administrator Amit Bose, Deputy Administrator of PHMSA Tristan Brown, and David Arouca, national legislative director of the Transportation Communications Union (TCU) in testifying. The topic: Answer questions related to the current state of rail safety.

The second panel of the rail safety hearing before the House Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee is shown on July 23. SMART-TD National Legislative Director Greg Hynes is at right.

Can railroads be trusted?

Republican and Democratic congressional representatives, along with three members of the Biden/Harris administration, all put the Class I railroads on notice with a collective answer of NO!

When Brother Hynes was asked the direct question of whether big railroads can be trusted to self-regulate, he answered definitively: “Absolutely not, and I have a 150-year record to prove it!”

At one point in his line of questioning, Rep. Derrick Van Orden (R-Wisconsin) asked for everyone on the panel who works for the railroads to stand up and be recognized. He paused and followed it up with, “Let the record show reflect that no one stood up, because they didn’t bother to show up, even though they were invited to this hearing! BNSF, Union Pacific, and Canadian National were all invited to this hearing, and they are not here, and that is shameful. That is NOT OK.”

The time for union action is coming

Today’s hearing was not a close call — railroaders won big. The carriers not only lost, but they looked bad doing it! Everyone in the room knew what needed to be done: Pass the Railroad Safety Enhancement Act of 2024 and make the carriers accountable for the flatlined approach to improving rail safety that Precision Scheduled Railroading has encouraged.

We will continue to follow this story and stay alert as Congress throttles up its attention on these sister rail safety bills — the Railroad Safety Enhancement Act of 2024 and the Senate’s Railroad Safety Act of 2023.

During the first day of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearing on Norfolk Southern’s East Palestine, Ohio, derailment that happened Feb. 3, the importance of sharing information and communications in the wake of a rail disaster was brought into clear focus.

For an industry that says that data, hard evidence and the collection of information are major guiding principles for its decision-making process when people’s careers and the bottom line are at stake, the indications are carriers can do a much better job of putting first responders and everybody else in the loop when communities and lives are at stake in such a situation.

After all, it’s the train crews, fire crews, the EMS and the police in the places where accidents happen that are at risk in a disaster of the scope of East Palestine. Their resources are the ones that are expended and stressed to the limit by a billion-dollar corporation that’s passing through.

But talks of communication gaps abounded during testimony on June 22.

The crew had information responders could have used

One key commonality to many of the communication breakdowns is that the N32’s conductor was kept at arm’s length. As it was stated in the hearing, the conductor and his trainee had the train consist on the engine. Railroaders know that this document should have provided much-needed clarity to first responders as they put together their plan of attack.

In the hearing it was discussed that the railroad took hours to respond to the incident command center’s request for the consist information. They wanted this document so that they could determine if an evacuation was necessary, if so how large of an area would need to be evacuated, what chemicals were involved with the derailment, and what the proper tactics were to triage the fallout from these chemicals being on fire. All of these items and knowledge are held by the conductor, their paperwork and the Emergency Response Guide (ERG).

Members of the labor panel and the National Transportation Safety Board participate in the hearing on location in East Palestine, Ohio, that discussed the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern derailment.

Ironically, the problem the command center cited as to why they didn’t have communications with the crew/conductor, is that they had separated the locomotive and moved it a mile away. They did this because they had quickly and professionally used the resources at their disposal to calculate what chemicals they were hauling and that the ERG prescribed one mile of separation from the scene. This was the correct diagnosis, and the crew figured it out quickly. As the command center scrambled and struggled to figure out what to do, the crew already had figured it out, and acted upon it.

As the employee in charge of the train consist, N32’s conductor had all the information necessary to determine the correct course of action, as well as all the contact information needed to get a hold of the shippers and manufacturers of the chemicals. This information should have directly connected the first responders to the subject matter experts. A fire chief, police officer or even the governor of Ohio had no reason to know what a conductor’s role should be in that scenario.

Norfolk Southern, however, has every reason to know that the crew was the missing link that could have closed the communication gaps that plagued the response to the disaster. With as many people and vehicles that responded to the derailment and chemical release, it’s not unreasonable to think someone could have driven the one mile to the locomotive to check the crew’s status and to obtain the consist. If nothing else, someone could have contacted them over the radio to at least ask them what they based their decision on to get the locomotive exactly one mile away from the scene. What they would have learned is that the crew’s conductor and trainee didn’t choose that distance at random and they used the exact criteria that the command center should have been consulting to determine the “one-mile” radius needed for a proper evacuation.

More communication gaps

Oxy Vinyls, the subject-matter experts of the vinyl chloride contained within the tank cars ultimately subjected to the “vent and burn,” had representatives present and available to discuss what they thought was occurring in East Palestine. Though they had an expert on-site to discuss the chemical’s components and likely behavior, much like the train’s conductor their expert was not incorporated into the central command emergency response group. They had just one brief interaction with East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick, head of the central command, as the response effort was unfolding and were directed to NS representatives.

From then on, NS and its contractor acted as a buffer between the expert from Oxy Vinyls and Chief Drabik in his role as head of the incident command center.

It wasn’t just the fire chief of the imperiled town of 4,500 who didn’t have all the information the carriers and its contractors did. The offices of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Pa. Gov. Josh Shapiro weren’t told key bits of information that may have changed their response to resolving the situation, testimony revealed.

Slides projected in the background show the Norfolk Southern “vent and burn” operation as panelists look on during the National Transportation Safety Board hearing on location in East Palestine, Ohio, on June 22, 2023.

The day after the wreck, on Saturday, the conclusion had been reached that a “vent and burn” was the best option to proceed. The polymerization of the vinyl chloride inside a tanker was cited along with tanker damage as a motivator. Oxy Vinyls representatives in their testimony indicated that the temperature readings did not indicate that polymerization was occurring. They also gave testimony that heat alone cannot cause the polymerization feared by incident command, saying oxygen had to be present in the tank car to make that process possible. This was seemingly not the case because even though their five tank cars had been dented in the derailment, none of them had been penetrated, and the self-sealing pressure release valves were performing as intended.

The “vent and burn” that unleashed a black cloud over the small community on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border seemed over reliant on gut instincts and the field experience of the contractors paid to perform it rather than data, science and on-site resources. It also saved time — the alternative “hot tap” would have taken more time while the vent-and-burn procedure takes hours. By the contractor’s estimate, the “hot tap” solution to the problem would have taken at least five days to complete which would have been inconvenient to the goal of moving freight through southeastern Ohio.

As it happened, the positive for NS was that the “last resort” got the trains going faster while leaving a black cloud over East Palestine. From what the NS spokesman on the panel testified, the decision to conduct the “vent and burn” process was brought on by the fact that the temperature readings on one of the cars had elevated 3 degrees Fahrenheit from 135° F to 138°F.

What was pointed out in the hearing and was seemingly previously unknown to Chief Drabick was that in the time it took to prepare the five cars for the vent-and-burn procedure, the car in question was steadily dropping in temperature. By the time the vent and burn was executed, the temperature had dropped 12 degrees Fahrenheit to 126°F. This drop in temperature was 4 times the increase in temperature that triggered the decision to take that step; however, this drop in temperature was seemingly not brought to the attention of Drabick or the two involved governors.

SMART-TD Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity, who represented our union at the hearing, asked the contractors if once they had decided to go ahead with the vent and burn if it would have been possible to backtrack in light of the information about the falling temperatures of the cars. They said that it was indeed a possibility to have changed course right up until the process was initiated.

Members of the East Palestine community who were in attendance, along with Chief Drabick himself, seemed to be confused and shocked at the answer to Cassity’s question.

Another example of gaps in the communication within the incident command was that the Ohio National Guard who was charged with the duty to determine and initiate the mandatory evacuation of the community gave testimony that it was their understanding that they were preparing the community of East Palestine for an emergency evacuation consistent with the venting and burning of a single car of chemicals. On the day of the vent and burn they found out at the 11th hour that the intent was to vent and burn five cars. All the decisions made by the Ohio National Guard on the size of the evacuation zone and the staffing to support it were already baked into the cake by the time they were made aware the plan had expanded.

Maj. Gen. John Harris, Jr. was the representative of the Guard on Thursday’s panel and gave the details of how he and the Guard were caught off guard by this pivotal piece of information.

The picture that came into focus during the testimony of how the derailment was handled and the decision made to vent and burn the material in the five tank cars of vinyl chloride was not flattering for NS and its contractors with preventable communication gaps among members of incident command resulting in a black cloud over the response tactic chosen, as well as over a community that will take years to recover.

Panel discussions 3 and 4 were held Friday, June 23, and featured discussions focused on wheel bearings, wayside defect detectors, car inspection practices, and the construction and classification of tank cars. A recap of what occurred on the second day will be published soon.


The AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department (TTD), of which the SMART Transportation Division is a member, released the following statement to senators from President Greg Regan Aug. 4 as National Transportation Safety Board Member Jennifer Homendy’s nomination as NTSB chairperson was advanced today by the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Dear Senator:
On behalf of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO (TTD), our 33 affiliated unions, and millions of frontline transportation workers, I urge you to advance the nomination of Jennifer Homendy for Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) when the Senate Commerce Committee considers her nomination.
Member Homendy brings decades of experience in transportation safety and a fierce devotion to the protection of transportation workers, passengers, and the public writ large. Since joining the NTSB in 2018, she has worked tirelessly as an advocate for necessary safety improvements across all modes of our transportation network. Prior to joining the Board, Homendy shepherded major safety legislation through Congress as Staff Director of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials. Equally important to her deep policy expertise, Homendy possesses a crucial understanding of the role transportation workers play in ensuring the safety and security of our transportation system. There is no person more qualified to serve as Chair of the NTSB.
Member Homendy’s distinguished career in public service and steadfast commitment to transportation safety have proven that she has the leadership, experience, and expertise to confront our transportation network’s most pressing challenges with a strong voice. TTD is proud to endorse Jennifer Homendy, and I urge you to support her nomination.


Greg Regan

President, AFL-CIO TTD

In a press release issued Jan. 25, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that an airbrake failure caused a fatal collision between two Union Pacific trains in Granite Canyon, Wyo. on Oct. 4, 2018.
Local 446 members Benjamin Brozovich and Jason V. Martinez were killed in the collision. According to the NTSB, the collision occurred when the air brakes on their eastbound freight train failed while going down a hill. An air flow restriction in the brake pipe caused the air brake system to fail, and the end-of-train device failed to respond to an emergency brake command, the NTSB reported. As a result, the runaway train collided with the rear of a stopped UP train while going approximately 55 mph.
Click here to read more from the NTSB.

NTSB investigators Ruben Payan (left) and Paul Stancil survey the scene of the Aug. 2, 2017, Hyndman, Pennsylvania, train derailment in this photo taken Aug. 4, 2017. © NTSB

WASHINGTON (Dec. 10, 2020) — The National Transportation Safety Board issued Rail Accident Report 20/04 Thursday for its investigation of the Aug. 2, 2017, CSX Transportation, Inc. freight train derailment and release of hazardous materials near Hyndman, Pennsylvania.
No injuries were reported in connection with the derailment of 33 of 178 rail cars but three homes were damaged and about 1,000 residents were within the 1-mile radius evacuation zone. CSX estimated damages at $1.8M.
The accident train consisted of five locomotives and 178 cars, 128 of which were loaded, and 50 rail cars were empty.
NTSB investigators determined the probable cause of the derailment was the inappropriate use of hand brakes on empty rail cars to control train speed, and the placement of blocks of empty rail cars at the front of the train consist. Investigators also determined CSX operating practices contributed to the derailment.
Safety issues addressed in the investigation include:

  • CSX operational practices for building train consists that allowed for excessive longitudinal and lateral forces to be exerted on empty cars
  • Use of hand brakes to control train movement
  • Assessment and response to fires involving jacketed rail tank cars

Based on its investigation the NTSB issued a total of six safety recommendations, including one to the Federal Railroad Administration, three to CSX, one to the Association of American Railroads and one to the Security and Emergency Response Training Center. The recommendations seek:

  • Guidance for railroads to use in developing required risk reduction programs
  • Revision of rules for building train consists
  • Prohibiting use of hand brakes on empty rails cars for controlling train movement in grade territory
  • Incorporation of the lessons learned from this derailment about fire-exposed jacketed pressure tank cars in first responder training programs

Rail Accident Report 20/04 is available online at and the docket for the investigation is available at

Jennifer Homendy, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) final rule for Class I railroads and certain smaller railroads to establish risk-reduction safety plans issued Feb. 18 falls well short of the intent of the Rail Safety Improvement Act (RSIA) that was passed by Congress in 2008.

NTSB member Jennifer Homendy

“As the lead @TransportDems staffer who drafted the Act, I’m glad the rule’s out but it doesn’t comply with the RSIA,” Homendy said on Twitter. “It leaves out commuter and passenger railroads (that rule has been stayed 9 or 10 times now) and it fails to require freight railroads to implement fatigue management plans as part of their risk reduction program (which was required in RSIA).”

Later in her Twitter thread, she cited five accidents investigated by NTSB involving both freight and passenger rail that were linked to fatigue and reminded her followers that fatigue management is on the NTSB’s most-wanted list in preventing railroad accidents.

She also mentioned that FRA has seemed to reverse course over the years as in 2015, agency leadership had told NTSB that fatigue management would be addressed in a final rule.

The final rule as published requires Class I railroads to compose an FRA-approved RRP plan.

“These comprehensive, system-oriented safety plans are required to identify and analyze hazards and their associated risks, and develop and implement plans to eliminate or mitigate those risks,” FRA said in a release announcing the final rule. “An RRP is designed to improve operational safety, complementing a railroad’s adherence to all other applicable FRA regulations. Each railroad must tailor an RRP for its individual operations, and the RRP must reflect the substantive facts on any hazards associated with each railroads’ operations.”

“Railroads’ ongoing evaluation of their asset base and employee performance associated with operations and maintenance, under FRA regulations, can now follow a more uniform path of standardization, towards further reducing risks and enhancing safety,” FRA Administrator Ronald L. Batory said in the release.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said the final rule will improve freight rail safety in America in the same release.

It remains to be seen whether fatigue management will be addressed in a future rulemaking.

Read FRA’s final rule on risk-reduction programs as published in the Federal Register.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) will have some major shoes to fill with the April 13, 2019, retirement of Robert “Bob” Lauby, the agency’s chief safety officer.
Lauby had served in that capacity for FRA since September 2013. He was a frequent presenter at SMART Transportation Division regional meetings and worked to provide regulatory oversight for rail safety in the United States while overseeing the development and enforcement of safety regulations and programs related to the rail industry.


“Serving as the associate administrator for Railroad Safety and FRA’s chief safety officer is one of the highlights of my career,” Lauby said. “The job has been both challenging and fulfilling.
“Over the years, we grappled with many important issues and have significantly changed the industry for the better.”
Lauby had a hand in several regulatory safety efforts at FRA such as Positive Train Control, conductor certification, training requirements, drug and alcohol testing for maintenance of way employees, roadway worker protection, passenger equipment standards, system safety and others.
Other safety oversight improvements happened as a result of major accidents. Some of the major ones included crude-oil accidents at Lac Megantic, Ontario, Canada; Mount Carbon, W.Va.; and other locations; commuter train accidents at Spuyten Duyvil and Valhalla, N.Y.; and Amtrak passenger train accidents in Philadelphia and Chester, Pa.; Dupont, Wash.; and Cayce, S.C.
“No matter the challenges swirling around him, Bob had safety in mind,” said National Legislative Director John Risch. “He’s been great to work with and one of the most committed, level-headed professionals in the rail industry.”
Lauby said that he treasured any interaction he could have with members of rail labor as these helped to broaden his perspective about whom he was working to protect.
“I always took time to talk to the SMART TD membership to get their complaints, opinions, and perspectives on the latest industry issues,” Lauby said. “I often left enlightened or with a new perspective.
“Railroad managers are experts on what is supposed to happen. SMART TD members are experts on what actually happens. They always know what works and what does not work.”
In his more-than-40-year career, Lauby’s railroad and transit experience included safety, security, accident investigation, project management, project engineering, manufacturing and vehicle maintenance.
He joined the FRA in August 2009 as staff director of its newly established Passenger Rail Division in the agency’s Office of Safety and was later promoted to deputy associate administrator for regulatory and legislative operations at FRA. One of his responsibilities in that role was to oversee the Rail Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC).
Prior to his time at FRA, Lauby was director of the National Transportation Safety Board’s Office of Railroad Safety, overseeing hundreds of rail accident investigations for NTSB and coordinating with our union’s Transportation Safety Team in many investigations. He was NTSB’s representative on RSAC.
Lauby addressed SMART TD members in a workshop at the 2018 Seattle, Washington, regional meeting.

“At our regional meetings, I would introduce Bob and tell the troops that Bob was the big gun and can handle all the tough questions, which he always did,” Risch said at a party celebrating Lauby’s retirement in late March.
Lauby said he took his multiple presentations at TD regional meetings, including at the Seattle regional meeting last July, seriously — he felt he owed it to the attendees to give them useful information.
“I looked forward to the meetings each year and spent hours preparing my presentation and preparing for the questions I would get at the end – during the Q and A session,” he said. “I wanted the material I presented to be timely and useful to the membership, and I always tried to include the inside scoop – the stuff nobody else would talk about!”
But the benefits from his visits and interactions went both ways, he said, and showing up at the meetings gave him a fresh perspective on the industry.
“I always enjoyed speaking to the SMART TD membership – both at the Regional Meetings and when they were on their jobs,” Lauby said. “Whenever I traveled by train, I tried to spend time with the train crew or ride the head end to find out the issues of the day.
“I learned more about railroading from the working men and women of the railroad industry than from anyone else.”
Lauby’s departure is leaving a vacancy that FRA will have a difficult time filling, Risch said.
“No one will really fill your shoes because there is no one with the knowledge and experience to do that,” he told Lauby at his retirement party. “You committed your working life to rail safety, you have been a good friend of mine and a good friend to railroad workers everywhere.
“We wish you all the best as you enter this next stage of your life.”
Lauby said his career leaves him with a sense of gratitude.
“I will always be grateful to have had the opportunity to work in the industry I love, in a role where I felt I could make a difference,” Lauby said. “I will miss the thousands of people I interacted with each year. That includes the FRA employees and railroad industry labor and management … all the folks I dealt with at the various RSAC meetings. People are the most important part of any organization and the railroad industry is no different.”

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) ruled last month on the probable cause of a fatal accident in June 2017 that killed both a CSX conductor and a conductor trainee.
The men were struck from behind at 11:18 p.m. June 27, 2017, by an Amtrak train while walking to the cab of their train in Ivy City, a neighborhood in Washington, D.C.
The men had just completed a railcar inspection.
The NTSB report, released April 9, stated that there had been no rail traffic for about an hour on the active tracks upon which the men were walking as they returned.
As they walked, a pair of Amtrak trains, one northbound and one southbound, approached the men, the report stated.
NTSB said the northbound Amtrak train approached the men from the front on tracks to the left of those upon which they were walking, and that both trains sounded their horns and bells at virtually the same time in attempts to alert them.
“Given the simultaneous and similar horn and bell sounds from the two trains, the conductors may not have discerned two sources of the sounds and, consequently, concluded that the sounds originated from only one train — the one that they had detected ahead of them.
“As a result, it appears the conductors were unaware that a second train was approaching them from behind,” the report stated.
NTSB issued a new safety recommendation to the two carriers involved in the accident at the conclusion of its report:
“Prohibit employees from fouling adjacent tracks of another railroad unless the employees are provided protection from trains and/or equipment on the adjacent tracks by means of communication between the two railroads.”
Read the full NTSB report here.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released a preliminary report on the Oct. 4 collision of two Union Pacific (UP) trains in Granite Canyon, Wyo., that killed SMART Transportation Division Local 446 members Jason Vincent Martinez, 40, and Benjamin “Benji” George Brozovich, 39.
The report states that data retrieved from the event recorder of the train indicated that an emergency brake application failed to slow the train as it descended a grade west of Cheyenne before striking the rear of a stationary train.
“Normally, the locomotive would send a message to the end-of-train device to also apply the brakes with an emergency brake application,” NTSB said in the preliminary report. “According to the event recorder, the end-of-train device did not make an emergency application of the brakes. Investigators are researching the reason for the communication failure. After the engineer applied the emergency application, the train continued to accelerate until reaching 56 mph as the last recorded speed.”
Positive train control (PTC) was active at the time of the accident, NTSB said.
NTSB said further investigation will focus on components of the train’s air brake system, head-of-train and end-of-train radio-linked devices, train braking simulations and current railroad operating rules. Investigators will also determine if the railroad’s air brake and train handling instructions address monitoring air flow readings and recognizing the communication status with the end-of-train device, the report stated.
Three locomotives and 57 cars of the striking train derailed. Nine cars of the stationary train derailed.
The investigation into the collision is continuing, and a final report will be released by NTSB at a later date.
Follow this link to read the preliminary report.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on Oct. 30 ruled that flaws in Union Pacific’s approach to inspecting, maintaining and repairing defects on the Estherville Subdivision helped to cause a March 2017 derailment that resulted in multiple tank cars spilling undenatured ethanol in Graettinger, Iowa.
A rail near a transition onto a bridge broke, causing 20 tank cars to derail in the accident that happened at 12:50 a.m. local time March 10, 2017. Fourteen of the tank cars spilled 322,000 gallons of ethanol, causing a fire that burned for more than 36 hours. Three nearby homes were evacuated as a result of the accident, which caused an estimated $4 million in damage, including the destruction of 400 feet of track and a 152-foot railroad bridge.

NTSB investigators survey the March 2017 derailment of a Union Pacific train carrying undenatured ethanol in Graettinger, Iowa.

During the NTSB hearing, board member Jennifer Homendy said she made a review of a decade’s worth of accident data for UP and the numbers showed one thing in common.
“Every year, track defects are the chief cause of accidents with UP,” she said.
Along Estherville’s 79-mile stretch, Homendy said that 102 defects of “marginal” and “poor” crossties were identified over a two-year period from 2015-17.
After the carrier received the reports of rail or crosstie defects, chief accident inspector Michael Hiller said UP didn’t take enough steps to fix the problems prior to the accident.
“The inspectors were going out and they were doing their inspections, and they were reporting the conditions of the tie,” Hiller said. “In many cases – more than 100, as member Homendy pointed out – there were remediation efforts, and it’s clear based on our observations post-accident that the remediation efforts restored the track back to its minimum condition that it needed to sustain traffic.
“We’re looking to see that things are not just restored back to the minimum…we know that doesn’t work. If you’re finding 10 or 12 crossties in a 39-foot section of track that are defective, it’s not a good practice to go in and replace two or three just to restore the track.”
Also contributing to the accident was what NTSB described as “inadequate oversight” on the part of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
While FRA inspectors raised the carrier’s attention to track defects — the agency had just initiated a compliance agreement in late 2016 as a result of a fiery oil train derailment in Mosier, Ore. — and some action was taken, Hiller said not all enforcement measures, such as civil penalties, were used.
NTSB investigators also noted that FRA inspectors neglected to report some defective crosstie conditions.
After the Graettinger accident, Hiller said that the carrier has shown “very good response” to reports of tie defects and maintenance and has performed twice-weekly inspections on the subdivision in a post-accident agreement with FRA.
However, the NTSB did note that there was one week where the carrier inspected the subdivision only once.
“The extent of post-accident actions, while welcome, hints at the inadequacy of UP’s pre-accident maintenance and inspection program,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said. “The railroad is supposed to look for and fix unsafe conditions as a matter of course.”
Finally, the use of U.S. DOT 111 tanker cars to transport the ethanol also worsened the environmental impact of the accident, investigators said.
Hiller said that 10 of the 14 tankers that breached met old DOT 111 specifications “identified as having a high probability of releasing hazardous materials.”
DOT 117 specifications established by the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Agency (PHMSA) add reinforcement and other design features to cars transporting both crude oil and ethanol.
“The tougher design would have prevented the release,” Sumwalt said.
FRA identifies ethanol as the most hazardous material that is transported by rail in the United States. The denaturing process adds toxic compounds to make it unfit for human consumption and also lessens the tax burden for the carriers transporting it because it is not a beverage.
In the Graettinger accident, the ethanol was undenatured, meaning that the toxins were not added to the alcohol being transported.
“This seems to have had a beneficial effect on safety,” Sumwalt said. “Investigators found milder damage in this accident than in previous accidents with the same type of tank cars, but those involved denatured alcohol.”
It was suggested that a safety benefit might be achieved by getting rid of denaturants when transporting ethanol.
“Never before have I seen a regulation to make a hazardous material more hazardous,” Robert Hall, an expert in hazardous materials transport, said of the denaturing process. “It doesn’t make sense.”
A May 1, 2023, regulatory deadline has been set for all DOT 111 tank cars that carry ethanol to be changed over or retrofitted to meet the higher DOT 117 standards. In order to achieve that deadline, about 350 tank cars per month must be changed over.


At the hearing, NTSB issued three new safety recommendations and reiterated one safety recommendation to the FRA, PHMSA and UP. They address training on safety standards and available enforcement options for federal track inspectors, the need for research to determine if safety would be improved by transporting ethanol in an undenatured state, and the need for Union Pacific to re-examine track maintenance and inspection program standards on all routes carrying high hazardous flammable materials.
“The recommendations just issued, if acted upon, will result in better training for FRA track inspectors and clear guidance involving available enforcement options,” Sumwalt said. “They will result in UP re-examining its track maintenance and inspection program standards. Today’s recommendations will result in research by PHMSA into whether alcohol — ethanol — should be transported in an undenatured state and furthermore, a recommendation first issued in 2015 and reiterated today will result in progress milestone schedules for the phasing out of the DOT 111 tank cars for ethanol service by 2023, if acted upon.
“Otherwise, we risk a so-called sudden realization that isn’t sudden at all. We could have seen this train coming down the track.”
NTSB’s report states alcohol or drug use, and cell phone use were not factors in the accident, nor was the mechanical condition of the train, the performance of the train crew or the emergency response a factor. The full report will be available on the NTSB website when finalized.