The runaway chlorine tanker that bisected Las Vegas on Aug. 29 has the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada looking at broader railroad safety issues.
At a Wednesday meeting, Director of Regulatory Operations Kirby Lampley suggested that the commission consider asking the Legislature to fund an additional railroad inspector position. The commission now has four.
A fifth inspector, Lampley said, could take up the responsibility of inspecting switches, which allow trains to change tracks, and crossing guards.
No action was taken on Lampley’s suggestion because the commission agenda listed the tanker incident as a discussion item only.
The incident in Las Vegas involving a loaded tanker with the potential to set off Clark County’s worst-case disaster scenario was set in motion by a switching mistake.
However, investigators for the commission found that it was human error, not mechanical failure, that began the near-disastrous chain of events.
That fact was a prominent one to Commissioner Sam Thompson, who wanted to know what measures have been taken to prevent human error from sending another runaway car shooting across Las Vegas.
"That type of human mistake could occur again," Thompson said.
Commission Manager of Safety and Quality Assurance Grant Siwinski outlined the new safety measures enacted by Union Pacific at the Arden train yard for Thompson.
All tracks exiting Arden to the north have been blocked by a braked anchor car. If a tanker escapes control of yard staff, Siwinski said, the runaway would not be able to roll free of the yard.
Communication also was a major issue during the 19-minute episode that saw the tanker travel 20 miles from south to north.
While yard staff immediately informed Union Pacific dispatch of the runaway car, police weren’t contacted by the railroad company until about eight minutes into the incident.
Thompson asked whether railroad employees have been told to call local police immediately in emergency situations and Siwinski said yes.
"The railroad understands that incidents like this need to be reported to local police," Siwinski said.
Commission investigators were the first ones to reach Arden yard after the tanker incident occurred. They are working together with the Federal Railroad Administration and Union Pacific on identifying how the tanker escaped yard control.
Siwinski said a final report has not yet been completed. He did say the conductor of the three-person crew handling the chlorine car took full responsibility for the incident because the conductor had failed to inspect and manually align the switch that would have kept the car from accessing a track that exited the yard.
Other errors also were made, Siwinski said. Miscommunication between the yard and Union Pacific dispatch in Omaha, Neb., also contributed to the escape of the tanker from the yard.
Better training and awareness of the regulations on the part of Union Pacific staff might have prevented the entire incident, Siwinski said.
The tanker incident and the potential of a chlorine gas leak sent shudders through municipal, county and federal leadership, whose members have worked with Union Pacific to revise safety and response protocols. In 2006, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Institute for Security Studies conducted a vulnerability assessment of the state and found that the most deadly disaster the state could face was a chlorine gas accident.
The report found that a massive leak could kill up to 91,000 people if a loaded tanker vented its contents in a densely populated area.
Contact reporter Lisa Kim Bach at email@example.com or (702) 383-0287.