In Depth: Port of Tampa accident is one of over a thousand train derailments per year

Problems with the track are most commone causes

TAMPA - The Port of Tampa boasts a solid safety record, but accidents around the country in the last few years prove that transporting fuel and volatile chemicals by rail is risky business.

Glowing flames and crumpled rail cars have been common sights in the news in recent years, most tragically in Spain this week.  The crash of a passenger train killed scores of people.  But a disaster in Quebec, Canada earlier this month is more closely related to what happened in Tampa Thursday.  
47 people people died on July 6 when a long line of rail cars filled with crude oil jumped the tracks in a busy downtown area.

As with our much less serious accident in Tampa, the cause of the Quebec disaster has not been officially released, but what does the research suggest?

There were over 1200 derailments last year in the US according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Only a fraction of those resulted in the release of hazardous materials.

Data from earlier years suggests just under half of all derailments were caused by defects on the track itself. Almost a third of derailments were caused by human error.  Mechanical problems with the train, weather and signal failures made up the rest.

As  with the accident in Northern Spain, excessive speed or the failure to apply the brakes correctly are the most common of the human caused failures.

More rigorous and scientific inspection of tracks has made shipping and traveling on rail far safer now than in decades past.  But our local hazardous materials responders know how devastating one accident at the Port of Tampa could be.  

In addition to the flammable ethanol that spilled Thursday, the Port of Tampa handles and stores huge amounts of anhydrous ammonia and other compounds that generate even more dangerous fumes.

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