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Fast trains, toxic chemicals: Why rail safety is still a problem

By Thomas Black, Bloomberg News
Published: February 3, 2024, 6:00am
3 Photos
FILE - Portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed the night before burn in East Palestine, Ohio, Feb. 4, 2023. About 1,000 engineers and conductors who work for Norfolk Southern will soon be able to report safety concerns anonymously through a federal system without any fear of discipline. (AP Photo/Gene J.
FILE - Portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed the night before burn in East Palestine, Ohio, Feb. 4, 2023. About 1,000 engineers and conductors who work for Norfolk Southern will soon be able to report safety concerns anonymously through a federal system without any fear of discipline. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File) Photo Gallery

In the year since the derailment of a Norfolk Southern Inc. train brought national attention to US railroad safety, little has changed.

Trains are still rolling through East Palestine, Ohio, at 50 miles per hour — the same speed allowed last February when an accident spilled toxic chemicals in the rural town. Bipartisan safety legislation proposed a month after the crash is bogged down in the Senate. And derailments are happening at roughly the same pace.

One difference is that railroad executives have been forced to pay closer attention to safety after witnessing Norfolk Southern incur $1.1 billion in costs related to the Ohio derailment. In the wake of East Palestine, there also have been some improvements, such as increased rest for workers and installing more safety sensors.

Mark Wallace, one of the leaders for a union of train engineers, has seen a shift in attitude, especially at Norfolk Southern. But he’s skeptical it will last. The industry has previously tried to pacify the public and regulators with promises that never materialized, he said. Plus, the focus on safety can shift with new management.

“All that is a change in CEO away,” said Wallace, the first vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. Federal legislation is needed to ensure safety improvements, he said.

President Biden will likely renew attention on the town and railroad safety when he makes his first visit to East Palestine this month.

Derailments are common in the US, recently averaging roughly 1,000 a year (many of those coming in rail yards at low speed). But East Palestine struck a nerve because the train was carrying toxic chemicals.

The initial accident, which didn’t cause any deaths or immediate injuries, was exacerbated two days after the crash when Norfolk Southern and government officials decided to vent and burn five tank cars full of dangerous material. The move — intended to keep the tankcars from exploding — sent a plume of burning chemicals over the town.

The national media attention set off a wave of scrutiny and criticism, including Nofolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw being grilled by the Senate.

Meanwhile, residents worried about the impact on their health, but have been told by government officials that they aren’t in danger. However, some remain living in hotels because they’re worried about contamination, according to Jayne Conroy, a lawyer at Simmons Hanly Conroy, one of the four law firms in charge of a class-action lawsuit against Norfolk Southern. The railroad’s early decisions, such as reopening tracks only days after the accident, hurt its credibility with many residents.

“Every choice they made was a business choice, not a safety choice,” Conroy said. “It was all about getting that train line back up and running.”

A look inside the industry shows why major improvements may be far off.

Cargo transportation is one of the most difficult industries to keep safe. The equipment operates outdoors, making it subject to wear and tear, and interacts with the public and often at high speeds. Most fatal rail accidents happen at points where tracks cross with roads, with protection offered only by flashing lights and gates that cars can drive around – and frequently do, according to Nick Little, managing director of the Railway Management Program at Michigan State University.

“We’ve got so many grade crossings in the country,” Little said. “That’s a much bigger problem to solve than the derailments because that causes a lot more damage, injury and death.”

There also are a lot of trade-offs that pit safety against cost. If all trains ran at 20 miles per hour, they would be safer, but the infrastructure would be clogged with slow trains and shipping expenses would rise for retailers.

The order of cars is also a decision often weighing costs and safety. If a railroad sandwiches a group of empty railcars between two sets of heavy coal cars, those lighter cars are more likely to be squeezed and pop off the tracks when going downhill. Then again, waiting for the optimal set of cars to cobble together can clog rail yards and slowing the network.

“It’s something that a lot of people don’t comprehend — just how complicated it can be to get the right cars in the right order on the right train,” Little said.

The railroads, for example, have been building longer trains to reduce the need for crews and place locomotives in the middle to reduce pressure on the railcars. The unions say these long trains impact safety and make it more difficult for conductors to walk the train to inspect cars.

This balance can also be tipped by legislators and regulators. If the rails are too burdened with expensive mandates that don’t move the needle on safety, it can make operations more dangerous, according to Little. Before the industry was deregulated in 1980, trains sitting still on wobbly tracks would tip over and self-derail. The industry is safer than it was two decades ago because of heavy spending on infrastructure, better steel-making for rails and investment on new ways to inspect tracks and railcars, Little said.

Shaw, the Norfolk Southern CEO, has apologized for the crash and said the company is “determined to make it right.” Wallace, the union leader, praised Shaw for keeping commitments made after the accident. That includes the company hiring a firm to do an independent review of its safety culture, which resulted in honest conversations with unionized workers, he said.

Norfolk Southern was also the first railroad to join a Federal Railroad Administration pilot program called Confidential Close Call Reporting System in agreement with unions. The goal is to incentivize workers to report safety issues.

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Other railroads, such as CSX Corp. and BNSF Railway Co., like to keep their close call reporting systems internal and may get pressured to join the system, Little said. The airline industry uses a similar system to report unsafe incidents.

But to really improve railway safety, many say the federal government needs to act through legislation that would implement changes such as harsher penalties and phase in safer cars more quickly. That includes Pete Buttigieg, US secretary of Transportation.

“We need industry and Congress to step up,” Buttigieg said.