ODOT calls for end to oil trains in the Gorge

Due to track safety concerns, ODOT is now calling for a moratorium on oil trains in the Gorge

A photo provided by Oregon DEQ shows smoke coming from an train derailment in Oregon.
A photo provided by Oregon DEQ shows smoke coming from an train derailment in Oregon.

MOSIER, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — Oregon’s Department of Transportation has asked the federal government to put a moratorium on oil trains in the Columbia River Gorge and certain other parts of the state over concerns about inadequate inspections.

The request follows the oil train derailment in Mosier June 3, which sparked a fire, forced the evacuation of 100 people and spilled oil into the ground and the city’s sewer system.

Union Pacific officials have concluded that the metal fastener system that connects the railroad tie to the rail failed, causing the railway to break apart and derailing 16 oil tanker cars. The federal railroad administration is conducting its own investigation into the cause.

Inspections and tests by the state and Union Pacific in the days leading up to the derailment failed to reveal the defects.

“Until the underlying cause of the bolt failures is understood and, a means of detecting this defect is developed, we request a moratorium on running unit oil trains over sections of track that contain track fasteners of this material within the state of Oregon,” wrote Hal Gard, administrator of the state’s Rail and Public Transit Division, in a June 8 letter to the Federal Railroad Administration.

Despite hiring four additional inspectors last year, the state has no effective way to inspect and test the integrity of those bolts. State inspectors conduct only visual inspections, and defects in the kind of bolts used along the Columbia Gorge are not visible when looking from above, said Matthew Garrett, director of the state transportation department.

Union Pacific conducts a stress test of those metal fasteners, called lag bolts, once every 18 months, using a special vehicle that tests the strength of the bolts, said Justin Jacobs, a spokesman for Union Pacific.

“What that vehicle does is it is designed to go down the tracks and put lateral pressure on rails so if there is a broken bolt, it will detect it,” Jacobs said. “That vehicle provides equivalent pressure of a locomotive to the rails.”

That specialized equipment is “above and beyond” what the Federal Railroad Administration and the ODOT does in their inspections, Garrett said.

Union Pacific now plans to use that vehicle to inspect the bolts four times a year and plans to replace the older bolts with spiked bolts in the Columbia Gorge by end of year and across the state within the next two years, he said.

The spiked bolts are easier for state inspectors to see, Gard said.

State transportation officials have requested Union Pacific’s inspection records, data on the last stress test on the Columbia Gorge line and construction plans. Gard said he wants rail traffic to stop until the Federal Railroad Administration and his agency can verify that Union Pacific’s plans are sufficient to keep people safe.

“I need to be able to stand with straight face and say this track is as safe as it possibly can be,” Gard said.

The Federal Railroad Administration plans to start a technical investigation specifically into the bolts and is conducting intense inspections on both sides of the Columbia River. Gard said he has yet to receive word on whether the federal agency will grant his request for a moratorium on train traffic until then.

Union Pacific has a history of violations in the state. Nationwide, the company has paid more in penalties in the last two years than any other railroad, according to The Oregonian. None of the Oregon violations concerned defective railroad bolts, which caused the Mosier derailment, the newspaper reported June 10.

Several state leaders earlier last week also requested a moratorium on oil trains in the state, including Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merley, Gov. Kate Brown, and U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici.

In the meantime, Union Pacific trains continue to carry products through the Gorge. The company is not running oil trains until further notice.

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN 6 media partner.

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