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What the Ohio train derailment tells us about rail safety in the U.S.

A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains, on Feb. 6, 2023. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains, on Feb. 6, 2023. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

The Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio was 150 cars long.

The train was not equipped with a newer brake system, which might have prevented the accident.

20 of the cars were carrying hazardous chemicals. But no one knew that at the time.

The government has tried to regulate the rail industry … companies and lobbyists have resisted and largely won.

Today, On Point: What the Ohio derailment reveals about railroad regulation in America.

Guests

Julia Rock, reporter at The Lever. (@jul1arock)

Rebecca Burns, reporter at The Lever. (@RebeccaJBurns_)

Steven Cohen, Program director of the Masters in Sustainability Management Program at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies, where he is also the senior vice dean. Former policy analyst and consultant to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Interview Highlights

On industry safety and railroad regulation

Rebecca Burns: “Railroad companies and their chief lobbying groups have fought relentlessly against virtually every safety measure proposed by regulators, particularly in the past decade. Norfolk Southern in particular, has opposed requirements for braking systems that former regulators told us would have perhaps not prevented, but almost certainly mitigated the scope of the damage in East Palestine.”

On the train derailment in East Palestine

Rebecca Burns: “The accident is still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. We know a lot about persistent and structural issues about safety on the railroads. So in this particular incident, what we know so far from the NTSB is that it appears that a wheel bearing was in the final stages of overheat just before the train arrived in East Palestine. Video also showed that the train was on fire 20 miles before arriving in the town.

“Both of these issues sort of point to a fundamental problem here where we have longer and heavier trains. As we heard in the introduction here, this was a train that was nearly two miles long, being staffed by a crew of two people plus a trainee. So if you talk to rail workers, you know, what they’ll often say is that what’s surprising is not necessarily that this happened, but that it didn’t happen more often. It doesn’t happen more often. So after the train derailed, we saw the initial decision to do what the industry term calls a controlled release of the vinyl chloride to burn it off.

“Residents have been told that it’s safe to return home but are still really waiting. [There are] some really valid concerns. Vinyl chloride is a known carcinogen that can have a long latency period in between exposure. And when people start to experience some really significant potential health effects. And we’ve heard a lot of reports thus far of people experiencing respiratory issues, skin irritation, animals dying, fish dying has been documented by the Environmental Protection Agency. And so I think residents are really waiting from some clearer communication and need it, specifically from the EPA and not from contractors hired by Norfolk Southern.”

On the track record of the rail industry when it comes to safety

Julia Rock: “Norfolk Southern [has] a long history, especially over the past decade of lobbying against proposed safety rules that, you know, oftentimes are pretty common sense, as well as being a member of the American Association of Railroads, which is a lobbying group that has also continuously fought safety rules. So we reported a story soon after the derailment about how Norfolk Southern, as early as 2007, was promoting a new updated braking system known as electronically controlled pneumatic brakes. Norfolk Southern actually equipped one of its trains with this new braking system, told investors that it had the potential to reduce stopping distances of trains by up to 60%.

“And yet they turned around in the 2010’s when the Obama administration proposed rules requiring trains carrying crude oil, other hazardous materials to be equipped with this braking system. Norfolk Southern turned around, lobbied really hard against it. Their lobbying group fought it, and ultimately, after the Obama administration issued a rule requiring certain trains to be retrofitted with this electronically controlled pneumatic braking system, the railroads helped get it repealed during the Trump years.

“So there are numerous sort of particular examples like this, Norfolk Southern fighting safety rules. In this case, it was sort of remarkable because the company had actually previously touted the technology, you know, for making trains safer. Then there’s sort of the bigger picture issue, which is that this is an industry and Norfolk Southern has been part of these trends, which has been returning most of its profits to shareholders in the form of stock buybacks and dividends, has not been making investments in updating its infrastructure, has slashed its workforces by nearly 30% in recent years as part of a an efficiency program, which they’re calling precision scheduled railroading. So this is not an industry that’s sort of operating in a way that would sort of suggest it cares a lot about issues like staffing and upgraded technologies that would promote safety.”

How has the town been responding?

Rebecca Burns: “I think people are understandably quite concerned. You know, there’s a lot of fear and anxiety about the exposure. You know, as you noted, it’s a small community of about 5,000 people with a freight line running through it. And the sequence of events here where the derailment happened on a Friday evening, first responders reported that when they arrived on the scene, they could smell chemicals permeating the air, but had no available information about what chemicals they were dealing with. So the initial response really left a lot to be desired and just points to these kind of persistent safety issues that we’ve been talking about.”

Does Congress need to act?

Rebecca Burns: “I think a really sort of key broad takeaway here for Congress, for regulators is to really listen to the alarms that rail workers have been trying to raise, you know, including in the contract negotiations last fall, which were sort of approximately about paid sick days, but also much broader issues of safety and staffing.

“So different rail unions have recommended a range of measures, sort of ranging from public ownership of the railroads to very practical and immediate steps that could be required, such as making mandatory the railroads participation in a close call reporting system, so that regulators have a heads up earlier on with their near misses and steps need to be taken to make things safer.”

Related Reading

The Lever: “Rail Companies Blocked Safety Rules Before Ohio Derailment” — “Before this weekend’s fiery Norfolk Southern train derailment prompted emergency evacuations in Ohio, the company helped kill a federal safety rule aimed at upgrading the rail industry’s Civil War-era braking systems, according to documents reviewed by The Lever.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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