By Daniel Kelley
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Federal investigators on Tuesday blamed inadequate employee training at Conrail for a November 2012 freight train derailment and toxic spill in southern New Jersey that sickened residents and forced hundreds to flee the area.
Four tank cars tumbled into the Mantua Creek in Paulsboro, New Jersey, where the train had crossed a pivoting bridge designed to swing open for boat traffic. The bridge had failed to close properly and swung several inches as the train crossed.
The bridge displayed a red signal, but a Conrail conductor wrongly determined that locks on the bridge rails were engaged and got permission to cross, investigators said.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators said Conrail relied on “on-the-job training” to teach conductors how to inspect locks on the bridge and that the conductor had never done such an inspection before.
There were no written instructions and one engineer who testified said whether or not workers learned to inspect locks was "random," the investigators said.
The NTSB voted to accept the investigators' findings at a meeting in Washington, and a final report will be issued in a few days, it said.
A gash in one of the derailed cars spilled some 20,000 gallons of vinyl chloride, a highly toxic and flammable industrial chemical.
Exposure to the chemical can cause respiratory problems, coughing and light-headedness, according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
More than two dozen residents were hospitalized and some 680 evacuated the area around Paulsboro, a town of 6,100 people that also is home to two oil refineries as well as chemical plants.
It sits across the Delaware River from the Philadelphia International Airport.
The NTSB found the bridge had malfunctioned 23 times in the year preceding the derailment and 11 times in the month before.
One Conrail conductor noticed the locks failed to engage the day before the crash but by the time a technician arrived, they had done so, it said.
An engineering consultant hired by Conrail had recommended that the bridge be taken out of service, but the company declined to do so.
Conrail no longer allows dispatchers to let trains to pass red signals, according to investigators.
Conrail, jointly owned by rail operators CSX Corp and Norfolk Southern Corp, said in a statement that it regretted the incident and the impact on those affected and it was committed to the safe operation of its railroad.
"Conrail takes seriously the Board’s many findings and recommendations and we await the NTSB’s final report on this incident," it said. "We will evaluate the NTSB findings and final report and will implement all appropriate measures."
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Cynthia Osterman)