CSX addresses rail safety issues on derailment City Council hearing

CSX derailment Philadelphia
Credit: Getty Images

It was a story that tapped into the fears of many.

On Monday, Jan. 20, a freight train carrying crude oil over the crumbling 25th Street Bridge experienced the partial derailment of seven cars, with five cars over land and two cars, one with oil and one full of sand, on the bridge over the Schuylkill River.

No oil spilled into the river, but the close brush with an accident compelled City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson to convene a City Council hearing today on the issue.

“We’re trying to avoid a catastrophe,” Johnson said. “I keep hearing as long as the train is safe to go back and forth to trasnport products for clients, everything’s okay. … The people in the neighborhood are still living under siege.”

Representatives of CSX, the company that technically owns the bridge and was operating the freight train in question, explained that maintenance to upgrade the bridge by replacing cross-ties over a several week period led to the incident.

The crew performing the upgrade did not follow proper protocol for anchoring temporary fasteners to the new ties, which is believed to be the cause of the derailment, pending review by the Federal Railroad Administration.

No oil was leaked, but removing the partially toppled train cars took a full week.

“It was some of the most extreme conditions I have ever worked under,” said CSX Hazardous Materials Manager Mike Austin, noting the 14-inch snowfall, polar vortex and subzero temperatures that existed in the Philadelphia area at the time of the derailment.

After the incident and complaints were reported regarding falling concrete from the 25th Street bridge, CSX hired James J. Anderson Construction Inc. to undertake a thorough examination and repair of the entire structure to remove all loose concrete. That work began Feb. 18 and is still underway, said CSX vice president for community affairs Quintin Kendall.

City officials expressed confidence in their ability to handle a more serious derailment, if it were to occur.

“The response we sent to this incident would’ve been able to handle whatever we found there,” Philadelphia Fire Department Deputy Operations Commissioner Derrick Sawyer testified at the hearing.

Darrin Gatti, chief engineer and surveyor of the city’s Streets Department, said that railroads and structures like the 25th Street Bridge, which passes through South Philadephia, are only subject to inspection by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

Gatti said the city does not regulate a company like CSX to inspect its own bridges; only the FRA does that. Other bridges in the city are owned by companies such as Amtrak.

Larry Kish, a regional administrator for the FRA, said that the integrity of the 25th Street Bridge was “sound.” But Johnson questioned that evaluation, pointing out that pieces of concrete had been found around the bridge, which he believed had fallen off. Kish suggested they had been more likely thrown off by kids on the tracks.

Samantha Philips, director of the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management (OEM), said that CSX and the OEM have partnered in a new information-sharing program since the derailment.

Derailment Timeline

Monday, Jan. 20, 12:50 a.m.: The last seven cars of a 100-car freight train passing over the Schuylkill-Arsenal Bridge.

1:07 a.m.: The Philadelphia Fire Department dispatched multiple units including a hazardous materials crew to respond to the scene.

1:16 a.m.: CSX representatives met the Philadelphia Fire Department at the scene. CSX Hazardous Materials Manager Mike Austin was notified of the incident. The river was closed to boat traffic as a safety precaution. The U.S. Coast Guard was notified.

1:30 a.m.: CSX crews arrived to assist with damage control.

1:45 a.m.: A CSX mechanical group arrived at the scene.

2:27 a.m.: Philadelphia Fire Department crews returned to their stations or left the scene while remaining in contact with CSX employees.

6:30 a.m. Austin arrived at the scene.

Removing the train cars safely during heavy snows and cold temperatures required first emptying oil from the tanker. THe cars were fully removed from over the water as Jan. 28, 3:28 p.m.

Source: Philadelphia Fire Department, Hazardous Materials Administrative Unit Battalion Chief Michael Roeshman

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