Category Archives: Transportation History

The New Pipeline Rule I Waited Half a Career to See

By Charles Koval

One night, a couple feet underground outside an American home, the gas flowing in a service line began to escape through a puncture adjacent to a newly installed mailbox. A man and woman inside the home were watching the news. Their children were playing. Then, suddenly, without warning . . . nothing happened.

A simple and inexpensive device called an excess flow valve (EFV) kicked in, stopping the gas flow. There was no explosion, no fire, no injury or loss of life.

As a petroleum engineer and pipeline specialist for the NTSB, I know that the most important pipeline safety advance in recent decades has been the establishment of the national one-call 811 number. But EFVs may be the next most important life-saver, especially for homeowners.

Diagram of how an excess flow valve functionsGas companies install an EFV in a service pipeline where it meets the main line. The EFV shuts off the gas flow in the service line when it exceeds the normal flow rate; excess flow often indicates that gas is escaping the service line through a puncture or sever, potentially leading to an explosion or fire.

I’ve been working a long time to encourage the progress that came to fruition late last year regarding EFVs. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) quietly completed an important achievement and, in the process, closed an NTSB recommendation. PHMSA issued a rule expanding the use of EFVs to new or renewed service lines leading to almost all small commercial businesses and multi-residence buildings.

It’s taken decades to achieve this result. In all, the NTSB has made 24 safety recommendations related to EFVs.

When I came to the NTSB in 1990, the agency had already been endorsing EFVs for 20 years, beginning with recommending a shutoff valve after research that came out of a 1970 safety study.

I worked on accident after accident that may have been prevented by EFVs. Most of my work between 1990 and 1994 involved single-family residences, but many multi-residence accidents were just as horrible, if not worse. The incidents occurred in large cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma, and St. Paul, Minnesota, and in smaller towns like St. Cloud, Minnesota; Montezuma, Indiana; and Cliffwood Beach, New Jersey. I can still remember my first NTSB supervisor expressing exasperation that this simple and elegant solution was not in wider use.

Then came June 9, 1994. At about 6:45 that evening, a 2-inch-diameter steel gas service line that had been exposed during excavation separated at a compression coupling about 5 feet from the north wall of John T. Gross Towers, an 8-story retirement home. The escaping gas flowed underground toward Gross Towers, passed through openings in the building foundation, entered the mechanical room through the floor vents, and migrated to other floors.

A resident smelled the gas, as did a workman onsite, who told his foreman. The foreman called the gas company and the housing authority, then had other employees locate and shut off the gas line valve inside the towers. But at 6:58 p.m., the built-up natural gas in the building ignited and exploded; a second explosion followed 5 minutes later. The accident killed one person and injured 66—and it could have been much worse. Many residents were not in the building on the early summer evening of the disaster.

A humble EFV could have shut off the gas flow into Gross Towers. After the explosion, the NTSB recommended that PHMSA’s predecessor agency require that all gas distribution operators inform all customers of the availability of EFVs. After many years, the agency did so. Meanwhile, fatal accidents continued—all potentially preventable with EFVs.

Then, in 1998, the NTSB was called to the site of an explosion and fire at a single-family home in South Riding, Virginia.

A man, woman, and their two children were spending their first night together in their new home. The family retired at about 10:30—the children to the upper level of the house, and, because not all of their furniture had arrived, the parents to the first-floor study. Shortly after midnight, the house exploded and was engulfed in flames. The children were thrown out of the house and onto the lawn, suffering minor injuries. The parents fell into the basement as the first floor collapsed. The father was able to crawl to safety, badly burned; the mother did not escape and died as a result of her injuries.

Again, an EFV could have prevented the tragedy.

Following this accident, the NTSB recommended that PHMSA require EFVs in all new and renewed gas service lines, regardless of customer classification, when operating conditions were compatible with readily available valves. PHMSA first required only that single-family homeowners be notified of the availability of the valve and be allowed to pay for it themselves. Then, in 2009, PHMSA changed the rule, requiring EFVs to be installed on almost all new and renewed service pipelines to single family homes.[1] Finally, on October 14, 2016, PHMSA expanded the safety requirement to include most new and renewed service pipelines for multi-residential and commercial applications, closing one chapter in EFV history—and with it, an outstanding NTSB recommendation.

My first NTSB supervisor is no longer with us, but even years ago, he could imagine the broad use of EFVs that he did not live to see. Sometimes it takes a long time to normalize safety. Too often, it takes a highly visible accident—or several of them—to draw attention to a problem. Solutions often come a little bit at a time, or a long time afterward, without any fanfare.

But for now, and well into the future, for many businesses and homes nationwide, if a service line fails, nothing will happen. These homes and businesses are a little safer today because PHMSA and the gas industry acted on NTSB’s EFV recommendations.

 

Charles Koval is a Petroleum Engineer and Pipeline Specialist in the NTSB Office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials.

 

[1] The service line does not need an EFV if it: 1. does not operate at or above 10 psig all year, 2. has previously had contaminates, 3. could interfere with necessary operation or maintenance activities, or 4. is not commercially available to the operator.

School Bus Safety Has Come a Long Way

by Stephanie Shaw

School Buses

Twenty five years ago, a crash occurred in Alton, Texas, that changed school bus safety forever. At 7:34 a.m., on September 21, 1989, a school bus carrying 81 students to school collided with a truck operated by the Valley Coca-Cola Bottling Company. After the collision, the school bus continued traveling and dropped into an excavation pit partially filled with water; the bus was totally submerged in approximately 10 feet of water approximately 35 feet from the nearest shoreline. Twenty-one students died. The NTSB investigated this tragedy to examine what occurred and made recommendations to improve school bus safety.

This tragedy allowed the NTSB to shed light on serious school bus safety flaws. In Alton, the children needed to escape through the windows, as the standard exits were either overcrowded or not working. But even with passengers shifting to windows, which were not designed as emergency exits, the exit options were insufficient. Moreover, the children were unprepared for how to react during an emergency. And during the evacuation, children and rescuers struggled to keep exits open. The NTSB issued several recommendations designed to address these gaps, including evaluating the feasibility of making the windows larger, establishing a requirement that floor emergency exits are designed to remain open during emergencies, and developing a comprehensive school bus evacuation-resource guide. Amendments to applicable federal regulations, issued in November 1992, addressed school bus emergency exits and a comprehensive guide was developed by early 1994.

Twenty-five years later, school buses are the safest mode of transportation for getting children back and forth to school. Every day, nearly 500,000 yellow school buses transport about 26 million school children nationwide safely. This week, school districts around the county will observe School Bus Safety Week. A week dedicated to engaging parents, students, teachers, motorists and school bus operators, and many others to address the importance of school bus safety.

As we reflect on the Alton crash twenty-five years later and the 21 young lives lost, we recognize that because of that loss and the changes that were made to buses lives have been saved.

Learning, Leading and Legacy

flight 3407By Debbie Hersman

It’s been four years to the day since Colgan Air flight 3407 crashed short of the Buffalo airport runway killing all 49 people on board and one person on the ground. Out of that investigation and through the tireless efforts of the family members and loved ones of those who lost their lives, air travel is safer today.

Our investigation revealed the need for improvements in a number of key aviation safety areas, including pilot professionalism, human fatigue, remedial training, pilot training records and FAA oversight. Despite their grief, I witnessed a group of families that not only wanted the industry to learn from this tragedy, but decided to lead. They became ardent and articulate advocates for real and substantial improvements to aviation safety. As a result of their tireless leadership, Congress passed the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010.

Four years after the crash near Buffalo, Wielinski home memorial on Long street
some 3 billion people have traveled safely on the U.S. airlines. That is a powerful testimony to learning and leading – from a terrible tragedy and creating a lasting legacy to improve airline safety. However, a great deal of work remains – 22 of 25 NTSB recommendations issued as a result of the Colgan accident have yet to be completed.

Today also marks the birthday of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. While Lincoln was remembered for overcoming many challenges, he also knew that public will was essential for change. He said, “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” Learning about the accident and leading the public sentiment – that will be the legacy of the loved ones of Colgan 3407.

Saving Lives – State by State by State

ignition_interlockBy Debbie Hersman

As I write this blog entry, there’s a lot of legislative activity at the state level where so much is decided that affects the quality of our lives—education, job creation, community services, and importantly for us at the NTSB—transportation safety.

Every state’s legislature will convene in 2013, with 43 state legislatures in session right now. We pay close attention to this since states are the recipients of many NTSB safety recommendations—measures that improve safety and save lives.

For example, 20 years ago the NTSB recommended graduated driver licensing, a three-stage driver-licensing system that reduces teen driver exposure to risk by restricting their nighttime driving and teen passengers. GDL laws are important because young, inexperienced drivers, especially 16-17 year-olds, are vastly over represented in fatal crashes. At the time of the NTSB recommendation, no state had a GDL system. Today, after intensive advocacy by a host of traffic safety organizations, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have some form of graduated driver licensing. NHTSA reports that GDL laws have led to a substantial decrease of crashes for young people, “anywhere between 20 and 50 percent.”

This year, there are a number of actions pending in the states that address NTSB recommendations and can make a huge difference in transportation safety. For one, a Georgia state senator recently introduced a bill to the Georgia legislature to require ignition interlock devices for all DUI offenders. These devices have proven to be effective in addressing impaired driving. In fact, last December the NTSB recommended the use of ignition interlocks for all offenders.

In another key traffic safety issue, ten states and the District of Columbia now prohibit all drivers from using handheld cell phones while driving. Our investigations have highlighted the deadliness of distraction across all transportation modes, which is why “Eliminate Distraction in Transportation” is on our Most Wanted List. It’s also why we will be advocating for states to enact legislation to ban all non-emergency use of cell phones and other portable electronic devices while driving.

Do you know what’s going on in your state to make transportation safer? The best way to influence change and save lives is to get involved. For more information on the NTSB’s priorities, see our MWL.

Deadlines Matter

By Debbie Hersman

It has been 16 years since the crash of TWA Flight 800. After an exhaustive four-year investigation, the NTSB concluded that the cause of this disaster was a center fuel tank explosion. Image

Among the many findings that came out of the NTSB’s investigation, we recommended that the FAA and manufacturers take steps to reduce the risk of future explosions. At the NTSB, we always stood by those recommendations, even when we were told that it could not be accomplished. In 2008, after many years of delay, the FAA finally produced the fuel tank flammability rule, which requires airlines to retrofit half of their fleets by 2014 and finish by 2017.

Unfortunately, the delays apparently continue. Today we learned that FAA fined the Boeing Company for failing to meet a Dec. 27, 2010, deadline to submit service instructions that would enable airlines to retrofit their fleets and thereby reduce the risk of fuel-tank explosions on Boeing jetliners. 

This is not just some bureaucratic Washington requirement. There are hundreds of U.S.-registered Boeing jetliners flying passengers that are being placed at risk by these delays.  It is critically important that the operators of these aircraft implement the recommended changes. 

Sixteen years is too long to wait to prevent another accident.  Deadlines do matter.

Celebrating the World’s First Union Station

By Stephen Klejst

Union Station, Indianapolis
Photo: Indiana Division of Historic Preservation

Do you know what union station means? It’s a train station where tracks and facilities are shared by two or more railway companies allowing for more convenient passenger connections. While New York City has Pennsylvania Station and Grand Central Station, here in Washington it’s Union Station.

One-hundred and fifty-eight years ago today, on Sept. 20, 1853, the Indianapolis Union Railway opened the world’s first union station in the Wholesale District of Indianapolis. The idea was to address the growing number of competing railroads building their own stations within the city, which created problems for transferring both passengers and freight. I wonder if they knew then how integral rail transportation and these “union stations” would be to the growth of our nation and economy.

Indianapolis continues to play an important role in our nation’s rail transportation system. Today, Amtrak provides intercity rail passenger service at the historic Union Station. In addition, Indianapolis is also a hub for freight rail. The city is currently served by two Class I railroads – CSX and Norfolk Southern – and four short lines – Indiana Railroad Co., Indiana Southern, Louisville & Indiana Rail, and Central Railroad of Indiana. These freight railroads carry on the railroad tradition of helping drive our nation’s economic engine by safely and efficiently moving goods and materials to manufacturers and consumers.

I was delighted to be at the luncheon earlier this year when Norfolk Southern and CSX were recognized for their outstanding safety performance at the 2010 E. H. Harriman Awards, the nation’s top railway safety recognition program. Norfolk Southern received the Gold Award for the 22nd year in a row and CSX received the Silver Award.


Stephen Klejst is Director, Office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Investigations.