WASHINGTON — A coal train derailment that killed two Maryland college students was caused by a broken rail, the National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday.
The NTSB’s conclusion was part of a 19-page report on its investigation into the 2012 derailment in Ellicott City. The derailment of the CSX train on Aug. 20, 2012 killed Rose Mayr and Elizabeth Nass, both 19, who were spending a summer night together before heading back to college. They were sitting on a railroad bridge when 21 cars of the 80-car train derailed shortly before midnight. They were buried in coal and died.
The NTSB’s report says an investigation revealed that a section of rail that caused the derailment showed evidence of a gradual breakdown. In particular, the rail showed evidence of wear that results from trains moving over the track, called “rolling contact fatigue.” The report said CSX was aware of rail problems and had been inspecting track in the area of the derailment every 30 days even though regulations only required a once-a-year inspection.
Robert Hall, the head of the NTSB office that investigates rail accidents, said Thursday after the report was made public that CSX had been doing “significantly more than what was required” as far as track inspection. He said the area of the track where the derailment happened had been scheduled for a major overhaul and had been more heavily used in recent years because of the growth of shipping of coal overseas, something it hadn’t seen in the past.
The report said the problem that led to the Ellicott City derailment, which caused about $2 million in property damage, had similarities with a 2006 derailment in New Brighton, Pennsylvania, and a 2012 derailment in Columbus, Ohio. The NTSB said that following those three accidents a Federal Railroad Administration committee has looked into the issue and earlier this year adopted a set of recommendations aimed at reducing similar accidents.
Since the accident, CSX has also installed a fence to keep people off the bridge where the women were sitting.
Ron Goldman, a Los Angeles-based lawyer working with the families, said Thursday the NTSB report was “deeply disappointing.” He said he asked the NTSB to go further than blaming a track problem for the accident and to look at whether track should be replaced after a certain number of years, regardless of what an inspection shows, as well as whether train cars that carry cargo like coal should be covered, so their contents wouldn’t spill in a derailment.
“This report does not help advance the interests of rail safety,” he said.