Federal rail agency conducted a ‘limited scope investigation’ of Whitemarsh train derailment — meaning no report

The FRA officially deemed the cause of the 2023 CSX train derailment to be a sinkhole. The agency decided not to conduct an in-depth investigation.

A section of a CSX train on tracks

A section of the CSX train derailed on Norfolk Southern-operated tracks in Whitemarsh Township. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

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Following the 40-car freight train derailment in Whitemarsh Township last summer, Federal Railroad Administration officials indicated they would investigate the incident.

The FRA’s investigation reports are usually posted online six months after an incident. WHYY News requested a copy. It turns out the agency decided to conduct a “limited scope investigation” — meaning no formal summary report was prepared, and no recommendations were made.

Early signs from the site indicated that heavy rains opened up a sinkhole beneath Norfolk Southern’s tracks, causing 16 of the CSX railcars to run off the tracks.

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One of the cars spilled non-hazardous silicone pellets. However, the township narrowly avoided an ecological disaster because the train was also transporting urea, a liquid fertilizer, and tetrachloroethylene. The latter is a carcinogenic, toxic dry cleaning agent.

“It differs from a full-scale investigation in duration and extent with the latter being more lengthy and exhaustive owing to the fact that the cause(s) and contributing factors may not be known,” an FRA spokesperson said in an email. “In cases where the cause(s) of an accident/incident are readily evident or identifiable, FRA may elect to not pursue a fuller investigation.”

The FRA did conclude the probable cause of the derailment to be a sinkhole.

The agency dispatched personnel to the scene with representatives from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, but decided not to pursue an in-depth investigation “after concluding that natural phenomena caused the accident.”

“FRA is primarily concerned with accidents caused by factors that are preventable including serious track or mechanical defects, or human factors,” the spokesperson said. “Events caused by weather, climate such as flooding and washouts, or other natural occurrences including geologic ones like earthquakes and landslides are generally of limited value. In other words, we tend to focus investigatory resources towards events where the cause and or contributing factors are unclear or indeterminate at the outset.”

Parts of Pennsylvania — including Montgomery County, are more prone to sinkholes than other areas. Research shows a growing link between climate change and sinkhole formation. On a national level, rail companies and the government have been under pressure over an aging train system and heightened safety concerns.

The FRA conducted the field work, which involved inspecting the tracks and interviewing railroad personnel, within days after the incident. The evidence took a “week or so” to analyze. The federal agency did not contact the township about the results of its “limited scope investigation.

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Township officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

CSX and Norfolk Southern submitted Form 54 reports to the FRA that revealed the derailment caused more than $1 million in equipment and track damage.

A Norfolk Southern spokesperson said in a statement that its tracks “are patrolled routinely by local track supervisors in addition to other regular maintenance” and that it adds “additional inspections during severe weather events.”

CSX did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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