Train Derailment: No Answers Yet to Why Train Wreck Happened

The clean-up from the Oct. 29 train derailment continues. Since then, residents near the site in southwestern Jefferson County have endured evacuations, road closures. There have been shelter-in-place orders as authorities dealt with dangerous chemicals, some spilled after the wreckage. And then there was the fire that injured workers.

But, as the dangers and disruptions recede, the question of how the Paducah & Louisville Railway train derailed endures. 

Federal investigators and others are at the train derailment site, sorting through the wreckage and trying to determine precisely what happened, officials said.

So far, no definitive answers have been provided.

Just after the derailment, P&L President Tom Garrett said that the railroad believed that the accident was not caused by human error — that the issue was likelier with equipment or the railroad.

P&L officials did not return a telephone message on Friday; a spokeswoman, Bonnie Hackbarth, would only say that the accident is still under investigation.

A spokesman for the Federal Railway Administration send this statement:

Investigators from the Federal Railroad Administration are still at the crash site investigating  the cause of the derailment and why hazardous materials were released. Investigations of this nature typically take an average of six months to fully complete.

A “black box” — similar to the data records used in airplanes — has been recovered from the train wreckage, said Jody Duncan, the MetroSafe spokeswoman.

P&L Railway operated the train and the railroad, Garrett said last month.

The railroad had been inspected at least two days before the derailment, Garrett said.

About half of all U.S. derailments are caused by track defects, said Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University who specializes in transportation issues.

Other factors in derailments? Vandalism, signal failure, mechanical problems with the train, improper loading, overloading and weather — mostly involving snow, Jarvis said.

Human error is responsible for about 30 percent of train derailments — mostly through excessive speed, Jarvis said.

In the past 30 years, technological improvements have drastically decreased the number of derailments in the U.S. — by about 70 percent, Jarvis said.

“Still, there’s room for improvement,” Jarvis said. “While tougher regulations — and more effective enforcement of the regulations we do have — would help, the biggest need is simply more money. Our railroad infrastructure needs to be rebuilt and our rail crews need more training.”

So far, the U.S. has has 335 train accidents on “main lines” — which includes derailments and other sorts of accidents, but excludes minor incidents in rail yards that are investigated, according to data from the Federal Railway Administration. That’s 50-percent fewer than in 2003.

Fifteen — including the one in Louisville — had releases of hazardous materials. 

Joseph Lord

Joseph Lord is the online managing editor for WFPL.

@joseph_Lord

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