Freight train derailments have seemingly been on the rise ever since a 141-car freight train operated by Norfolk Southern Railway derailed Feb. 3., in East Palestine, Ohio, adjacent to the Pennsylvania border. The wreck resulted in significant environmental damage to the immediate area as hazardous chemical materials were released into the air and water.
The cause of the accident in which 38 of the train’s cars slid off the rails is still under investigation. However, a preliminary National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report points to an overheated wheel bearing that went undetected for miles due to an ineffective temperature detection system built into the railways, which led to a multi-car fire.
The incident occurred at 8:55 p.m. local time and emergency responders were immediately called to the scene. Authorities from Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia worked to secure the area and evacuate up to 2,000 residents within a one-mile radius of the derailment. There were no reported injuries, but the potential for long-term health risks to local residents remains as 115,000 gallons of vinyl chloride were intentionally spilled out of five derailed tankers and intentionally burned off three days after the crash to prevent the possibility of an explosion.
The mandatory evacuation order was lifted following the controlled burn. An Ohio state outdoor agency confirmed over 43,000 aquatic wildlife species on the Ohio River in the vicinity of East Palestine died as of Thursday, Feb 23., due to chemical run-off from the original accident. Contaminants have been found in the Ohio River as far as 200 miles away in Jackson County, W.Va.
Vinyl chloride is a highly combustible chemical gas used to make industrial grade plastic. People are typically exposed to the chemical through air or water, which can cause a variety of cancers, most commonly of the liver. Exposure over an extended period of time may also result in Raynoud’s syndrome and joint and muscle pain.
The derailment also caused significant damage to the tracks themselves, several nearby buildings and a local road. Responders dug ditches along the accident site to catch chemical spill-off. Norfolk Southern has pledged to pay $6.5 million to affected residents, who have since reported symptoms including headaches, skin irritation, fatigue and coughing, as well as mental and emotional side-effects.
The incident in East Palestine is just one of several recent train derailments, a majority involving Norfolk Southern. However, accidents have actually declined over the past 20 years for both passenger and freight trains according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Federal Railroad Administration statistics also show freight train derailments declined between 2019 and 2022 by 13.2% and have been cut in half since the early 2000s — from 2,234 in 2001 to 1,164 last year.
Another derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train occurred late Saturday afternoon in Springfield, Ohio, less than four hours from East Palestine. The latest incident sent 28 rail cars off the tracks, including four tankers which were empty but carried residue from diesel exhaust and a synthetic polymer solution. The wreck caused approximately 1,500 customers to lose electricity due to downed power lines, as well as the closure of State Route 41.
Four other Norfolk Southern train derailments have occurred in Ohio over the past five months, starting Oct. 8, 2022, when 10 cars fell off the tracks causing damage to power lines and temporarily cutting electricity to over 1,000 Sandusky residents. A sixth derailment involving a freight train operated by the Ohio Central Railroad occurred in January.
Another significant freight train derailment involving Norfolk Southern occurred Feb. 16, approximately 20 miles southwest of Detroit. One of the six derailed cars contained liquid chlorine. The rail freight company is now officially under NTSB investigation regarding its “safety practices”.
Norfolk Southern attempted to get ahead of the latest round of bad publicity by announcing Monday it will implement a “six-point” safety plan to improve its “hot bearing” detection and safety inspection systems and promote a culture of safety by joining the Federal Railroad Administration’s reporting program. The company previously used an internal system exclusively to report safety concerns.
The company’s public relations note came days before CEO Alan Shaw testified in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Thursday. House Democrats on the Oversight and Accountability Committee are also putting pressure on Norfolk Southern, demanding answers as to how the company’s repeated lobbying attempts against safety regulations has contributed to the recent derailment incidents.
Ironically, 30 freight train cars operated by Norfolk Southern derailed in east-central Alabama Thursday morning, hours before the Senate hearing. No hazardous materials were being carried by the wrecked cars.
Despite a significant number of accidents over decades, the railroad lobby has successfully thwarted proposals to require freight train safety upgrades. During the Obama-era, for example, the Federal Railroad Administration proposed a rule requiring railroad companies to modernize its brake systems at a cost of approximately $500 million over the next two decades. The proposal ultimately failed thanks to efforts by the Association of American Railroads, which estimated the rule would cost up to $3 billion industry-wide.
Norfolk Southern Corp. (NSC) alone reported a combined total gross profit of nearly $10 billion over the past two years and has spent $8.7 billion buying back its own stock and increasing dividends during the same period — $18 billion since 2018.
NSC’s Shaw also met with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in November 2022 about a proposed agency rule requiring freight trains to carry two crew members for safety purposes. In the wake of February’s disaster, however, all four U.S. senators from Ohio and Pennsylvania have co-sponsored legislation requiring two-person crews, more regulations for trains carrying hazardous materials and increased monetary penalties for railroad companies caught breaking federal safety laws.
Another factor contributing to a rise in train derailments is the growing demand for faster delivery of goods and materials. Increased pressure on railroad companies to maximize single-train loads has pushed freight train companies’ equipment to capacity limits. This push for greater productivity has resulted in safety protocol lapses, increasing the likelihood of accidents as the rail industry failed to rehire safety workers laid off during during the pandemic.
The incidents in Ohio and elsewhere highlight the need for increased investment in railway infrastructure, including the renovation of aging tracks and bridges, and greater oversight of freight train companies. It also underscores the importance of emergency preparedness and response planning for communities located near railroads.
While the investigation into the cause of the East Palestine derailment is ongoing, it is clear government agencies must take action to address the underlying issues that have led to this and other incidents. For example, federal regulators can require the implementation of new safety equipment like electronically controlled pneumatic brakes for freight trains, which would improve braking times by up to 70 percent.
Federal and state governments must also ensure that railroad companies are held accountable for their operations and are provided with the resources they need to maintain the highest levels of safety and compliance. Nearly half of all active Class I freight rail locomotive fleets in 2021 were built before 2000, while less than a quarter have debuted since 2010.
Trains have a long and rich history, dating back to the early to mid-19th century. America’s first transcontinental railroad was completed May 10, 1869, at Promontory, Utah — an accomplishment that made cross-country travel and trade substantially faster and more efficient. Keeping the railroads safe and secure is a patriotic duty of both state and federal government and all freight train companies operating in America.