The toxic train crash in East Palestine, Ohio, has brought new attention to the dangers of increasingly extended freight trains, as part of a series of cost-cutting attempts by freight railways that have drew criticism from the industry’s detractors.
The sheer size of the 150-car train that derailed on Feb. 3 near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border is just one factor investigators are expected to consider amid the unfolding ecological disaster, which caused a massive fireball, forced an evacuation, and has left a lingering odour, fears of long-term contamination, and thousands of dead fish. But, union officials, regulators, and congressional experts say the industry’s drive towards ever-increasing train lengths is producing a slew of safety issues that must be addressed.
“The longer and heavier the train, the more wear and tear it puts on the actual rail itself, as well as the equipment,” said Jared Cassity, legislative director for SMART-Transportation Division, the country’s largest rail union. “There is more wear and tear. We’re witnessing an increase in unintentional train separations, which is when the train breaks apart.”
Several organisations, including the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Transportation Safety Board, are still investigating the Ohio derailment. The NTSB, an independent organisation, has preliminary determined that an overheated wheel bearing on one of the cars contributed to the derailment.
But, derailments of this magnitude often have several points of failure, and the NTSB’s inquiry will most certainly take more than a year to complete. Such NTSB probes often look into every possible reason of a crash, such as equipment problems, poor system design, a lack of safety safeguards, insufficient training, crew weariness, and a variety of other factors.
“One hundred fifty vehicles is a really, really substantial [number of cars],” said Sarah Feinberg, who led the Federal Railroad Administration under Barack Obama and dealt with repeated oil-train mishaps and a fatal Amtrak crash. “The FRA and other safety regulators have voiced concerns about trains of that size for years.”
Indeed, the FRA’s threshold for designating a train as “extremely lengthy” is 150 cars, despite the fact that no official definition exists. According to a 2019 study, 150 cars is more than twice the average length of freight trains run by major railroads between 2008 and 2017. The GAO discovered that typical freight train lengths have increased by 25% since 2008, with some trains reaching nearly three miles in length.
The key trade body for the freight rail industry disregarded length worries. “Comparable length trains have been safely operating for decades, and the industry’s safety record has witnessed substantial improvements over those same decades,” said Jessica Kahanek, an Association of American Railroads spokesman.
But, the GAO authors raise several issues regarding train length, including the fact that it can impair crews’ ability to control the trains, take longer for brakes to stop them, and pose safety problems when firetrucks can’t get through multiple blocked rail crossings. In a December study, the FRA stated that it lacks the data “to establish safety effects” of long trains and, in some situations, lacks the authority to act on them.
The subject is also being investigated by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
Others, particularly labour unions, argue that the trains are too long for employees on opposite ends to communicate, and that workers on board can’t always hear track-based warning alarms up ahead. “Our radios aren’t designed for the distances that these trains are,” Cassity explained.
At the same time, one industry analyst pointed out that freight railways like Norfolk Southern, which operated the trains involved in the Ohio tragedy, cannot refuse to transport dangerous commodities like vinyl chloride, one of the poisonous, combustible chemicals spilled in East Palestine. Because railroads are considered “common carriers,” they must transport any legally approved commodity.
“The government does not let Norfolk Southern or the other railroads to transport dangerous chemicals,” rail analyst Tony Hatch explained. “They are compelled to bear them.”
Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine pledged during a television interview Wednesday to make Norfolk Southern “pay for everything” needed to deal with the aftermath of the disaster, while Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) said in a statement that questions remain about the train’s brakes and DOT’s “regulatory approach to our nation’s rail system.”
Feinberg also addressed the brake issue, stating that she feels an advanced brake may have mitigated the harm caused by the Ohio accident.
In response to a spate of flaming derailments of freight cars transporting crude oil, the DOT established a rule in 2015 requiring railroads to employ such types of electronically controlled pneumatic brakes on select extremely dangerous trains. However, the Trump administration withdrew the braking mandate in 2017, after a National Academy of Sciences review found that ECP braking technology was not clearly better to alternatives.
For long trains, the type and position of locomotives used to brake them is very crucial. The NTSB’s final report on a 2017 derailment in Pennsylvania condemned the use of hand brakes and freight car arrangement in that catastrophe, which also discharged toxic chemicals and necessitated the evacuation of a nearby town.
Feinberg stated, “I and many others have emphasised for many years that an ECP braking system is a lot safer stopping system to have on” any “large” train load.
Norfolk Southern defended the train’s integrity, particularly its braking configuration, in the Ohio derailment. According to spokesperson Thomas Crosson, the weight distribution of the train that derailed in Ohio “was uniform throughout,” and a braking locomotive was put mid-train to help it stop correctly.
The disaster in Ohio has also fueled further criticism of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, notably from conservative media sources that chastised him for not commenting publicly about the catastrophe until 10 days later. Progressives such as Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) are blaming Buttigieg for the event and urging him to take “active action.”
Following days of requests for Buttigieg to engage more, the secretary responded on Twitter on Monday, expressing sympathy for the residents in and around East Palestine whose “lives were upended through no fault of their own.” He also listed the many federal agencies involved in the response.
According to railroad unions, the fundamental issue is that corporate cost-cutting methods are eroding safety and increasing the likelihood of tragedy. This issue — corporate cost-cutting over safety — was also a contributing factor in train unions threatening to strike last year.
Unions in particular challenge railroads’ deployment throughout the past decade of “precision planned railroading,” an operating strategy that focuses on minimising worker expenses and increasing equipment efficiency, including avoiding leaving train cars idle.
According to the GAO, 40 percent of equipment maintenance personnel were laid off as a result of the efficiency effort.
“We’ve heard from inspectors that the time allotted to inspect both sides of a rail car has been reduced by 75% — from 2 minutes to as little as 30 seconds — as a result of the rail industry’s profit-over-people business model,” said Greg Regan, president of the AFL-Transportation CIO’s Trades Department.
AAR’s Kahanek stated that trains are not only examined before leaving a rail yard, but technology along the track regularly assesses each train’s soundness and safety as it moves through the system.
Precise scheduling and other efficiency measures have exacerbated freight rail’s problems, according to former Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), who chaired the House railroad subcommittee. “That was a massive shift that rippled throughout the whole North American freight rail industry,” he explained. “And I believe Congress has not responded adequately to those changes.”
Railroads have been losing workers since 2015 and 2016, when waves of layoffs began, and those who remained were forced to work longer, less regular hours in difficult conditions. Several seasoned personnel with decades of experience have left the industry in frustration, even foregoing substantial railroad retirement benefits, according to union leaders, and railroads are now trying to attract novices to take their place.
The EPA has informed Norfolk Southern that company may be held accountable under the Superfund clean-up law. Nonetheless, the organisation announced on Sunday that the air in East Palestine is now safe to breathe.