Are U.S. railroads safe?
BACKGROUNDER | Assessing railway safety after a disastrous train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio
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Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, are still dealing with the cleanup after a 2-mile-long freight train derailed while carrying hazardous chemicals in the middle of town. A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation is putting Norfolk Southern Railway in a harsh spotlight, exposing regulatory loopholes that could have contributed to the accident. Here’s more about railroad safety:
How often do derailments occur? In 1978, the nation logged about 8,500 derailments. In 2022, the Federal Railroad Administration reported only 1,164, with human error and track defects as leading causes.
What are railroad temperature detectors? These devices, also called hot boxes, are situated along the tracks to take temperature readings. A preliminary NTSB report found an overheated wheel bearing to be the cause of Norfolk Southern’s derailed 32N train. One reading taken 30 miles outside East Palestine found the bearing only 38 degrees Fahrenheit above ambient temperature. The next detector 11 miles down the track recorded 103 degrees above ambient temperature, and security cameras showed flames under the cars. The next detector was 19 miles away—just outside East Palestine—at which point the bearing was 253 degrees above ambient. The crew pulled emergency brakes, but it was too late to stop the cars from jumping the tracks.
What is Norfolk Southern doing to improve track safety? The company promised to consider adding more sensors along routes “where practical.” Executives anticipate installing 200 over the next year. But few federal regulations require them to do so. The NTSB serves only in an advisory capacity: Railroads can decide whether to use detectors, how far apart to space them, and what temperatures are acceptable. Norfolk Southern detectors issue a non-critical alert between 170 and 200 degrees above ambient.
Who knew about the chemicals on 32N? Federal rules require railroads to alert state emergency departments when a train has at least 20 consecutive cars carrying Class 3 flammable liquids, including benzene. But among the tanks carrying hazardous materials on 32N, only two had benzene, and one other had Class 3 liquids. That’s not to say there was no tracking. First responders monitor trains through a safety app called AskRail, which tracked 32N.
What is “precision scheduled railroading”? It’s a general practice companies have adopted in recent years to lengthen trains, shorten inspection times, and speed up deliveries. Executives call it a cost-efficient measure, but union leaders claim it leads to understaffing and human error. A 2022 Government Accountability Office report found that the seven major freight railroads have cut staff by 28 percent since 2011 and lengthened trains. The GAO did not say whether the changes contributed to accidents.
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