Since the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailed, accidents have risen

Since the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailed, accidents have risen

After a freight train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed a year ago in East Palestine, Ohio, leading to the evacuation of hundreds of residents and upending life in the city for months, the rail industry pledged to work to become safer, and members of Congress pledged to pass legislation to prevent similar disasters. .

No bill was passed. Accidents rose.

Derailments rose at the five largest freight railroads in 2023, according to regulatory reports for the first 10 months of the year, the latest period for which there is data for all five companies.

There has been a sharp increase in the mechanical problem – an overheated wheel bearing – that organizers believe caused the 1.75-mile-long train to derail in eastern Palestine.

Norfolk Southern, the train operator and owner of the track that runs through the city, was the only railroad of the five to report a decline in accidents in that period.

In response to the accident, members of Congress in March introduced a bipartisan bill aimed at making railways safer. But crucial parts of the legislation — including requiring railroads to use more detectors to identify overheated wheel bearings — have faced resistance from railroad lobbyists, who contend it would inhibit railroads’ ability to introduce new practices and technologies to reduce accidents. The bill has not yet been put to a full vote in the Senate.

“These numbers show that safety standards in the rail industry are getting worse,” said Sen. J.D. Vance, Republican of Ohio, who co-sponsored the bill. “We can reverse this trend by passing the Railroad Safety Act immediately.”

Rail companies say they have taken steps since the disaster to reduce accidents, including using new technology and improving safety training, and that these changes are starting to pay off.

In the accident that occurred on February 3 of last year, 38 train cars were derailed; 11 of them contained hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride, which is used in the plastic industry. Three days after the accident, authorities, fearing that the five tank cars containing vinyl chloride would explode, released the contents of the cars and burned them. The fires caused huge columns of smoke to rise over eastern Palestine, which is located on the border with Pennsylvania.

A still-polluted creek runs from the accident site through central-eastern Palestine, where the mayor, Trent Conway, has offices in an ordinary municipal building he calls the village hall. In an interview this month, he said the city was “90 to 95 percent back to normal.”

But like many other residents, he said he wants to make sure changes are made to hold rail companies accountable.

“I wish the Railroad Safety Act had been passed,” Mr. Conway said. “It kind of bothers me. It’s like we’ve forgotten a little bit.” He said his next task that day was to draft an invitation for President Biden to visit the city.

Train traffic through eastern Palestine resumed a few days after the accident. But the derailment area still looked like a major cleanup site this month, as truck traffic choked the main road. On the edge of the site, the Stateline Tavern and gas station remained closed.

No one died in the accident, there were no injuries, and evacuated residents were told they could return a few days after the accident. In October, the Environmental Protection Agency said residents of eastern Palestine were not at risk from polluted drinking water, soil or air from the derailment, but some residents remained wary.

“We won’t really be able to know the impacts for 10, 15, 20 years, right?” said East Palestine resident Jeffrey Elliott, whose home is about a half-mile from the crash site.

Although rail is much safer than trucking for transporting hazardous materials, the East Palestine disaster has raised concerns about the damage a freight train derailment could cause in more densely populated areas.

The incident caused significant damage to businesses in eastern Palestine, including a gas station and a downtown liquor store that Anna Doss, a local businesswoman, has run for years. She said that gas station revenues decreased by about a quarter last year. Mrs. Doss said that her niece, who helped her run the liquor store, left eastern Palestine because of the train accident.

“This whole thing has cost me a lot,” she said. “It’s not just the money.”

The accident forced an examination of how the rail industry is organized and its safety record.

Despite this scrutiny, the five Class I freight railroads operating in the United States — Union Pacific, BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern and Canadian National — reported 256 accidents on their main lines from last year through October, an 11 percent increase over the same period a year 2018. 2022, according to data collected by the Federal Railroad Administration. The five railway lines recorded an overall decrease in accidents in 2021 and 2022.

Derailment accidents, the most common accident, rose by 13.5 percent last year, and “obstacle accidents,” a term used to describe a train colliding with certain objects, the second most common category, rose by 21 percent.

The railway administration also compiles the causes of accidents, and this data shows that there were 17 accidents related to overheated wheel bearings in the first 10 months of last year – more than double the six cases recorded in the same period in 2022 and higher than the total for any full year since. now. 2014.

“We are certainly, despite the uptick in some numbers in 2023, still by far the safest way to move freight over land, especially hazardous substances”. Rail Standards said in an interview. “And we have to work every day to continue to bring these numbers down even further.”

Mr. Jeffries said the railroad took several steps after the East Palestine accident to improve safety. Previously, the industry required railroads to stop and remove rail cars if wheel bearing temperatures reached 200 degrees Fahrenheit. In July, the association requested this measure at 170 degrees. (The wheel bearing on the East Palestine Train at one point reached 253 degrees, according to a trackside detector.)

BNSF, owned by Warren E. Berkshire Hathaway, showed… Buffett, the largest railroad company in the United States as determined by miles of track, reported a 10 percent increase in accidents during this period. Kendall Kirkham Sloan, a BNSF spokeswoman, said the company was the safest railroad in the country, based on safety measures taken by the federal government, and that accidents had been reduced through training and technology.

Union Pacific, the second-largest railroad company, reported a 32 percent increase in accidents during this period. Christine South, a spokeswoman for the company, said some accidents, such as those caused by objects on the track, were beyond the railway’s control, and that the focus should be on “serious” derailments, a category she said had declined by 5 percent. Last year at Union. Pacific.

CSX, the third-largest railroad company, reported a 31 percent increase in accidents over the 10-month period. Brian Tucker, a company spokesman, said the company’s safety performance had been “challenged” by hiring many new employees after the pandemic, but it had beefed up its training last year, which contributed to a sharp decline in accidents in the fourth quarter. As a result, CSX on Wednesday reported an accident rate — which measures accidents as a percentage of distances traveled by trains — that was slightly lower in 2023 than it was in 2022. (Total accidents are still rising.)

The five railroads’ overall performance last year could have been worse had it not been for the significant improvement at Norfolk Southern, which reported 29 accidents in the first 10 months of 2023 on its main lines, down 37 percent from 46 accidents in the same period in 2022. ..

In an interview, Alan Shaw, CEO of Norfolk Southern, said the company had changed the way trains were assembled to try to make them less accident-prone. It also introduced new technology and focused on improving its safety culture.

“It’s an ongoing process, and there’s no silver bullet,” he said. “It’s a bunch of different initiatives coming together.”

On its approach to eastern Palestine, the derailed train did not pass a very hot loaded detector for about 20 miles, suggesting that had there been more detectors, with shorter distances between them, the problem may have been detected earlier, perhaps to avoid it. deviation.

Norfolk Southern spokesman Connor Spielmaker said it added two detectors near East Palestine, resulting in an average distance of 11 miles between the two detectors. Across the busiest parts of its network, Norfolk Southern has added 115 detectors since March, and with more additions, it expects the average distance between detectors to drop to about 11 miles from 13.9 miles by the end of this year, he said. En route to eastern Palestine, the company operated two of its latest digital inspection gates, which use 38 cameras to capture potential defects in trains as they pass.

However, Norfolk South saw four derailments and an employee death last year, matters that are being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board. The city witnessed five incidents related to overheating of wheel bearings, the highest number in at least three decades.

Working with Norfolk Southern, the East Palestine Fire Department had access to a system that instantly told them what was on the rail cars, something that wasn’t in place when the derailment occurred, said Keith Drabek, chief of the department.

“I had a hard time because of the amount of fire that was going on,” he said.

Norfolk Southern paid expenses related to the derailment for East Palestine families, such as cleanup and transportation costs, and settled claims with a few companies. It plans to spend $25 million on renovating the town park and the same amount on building a training center for the city’s emergency workers.

“They made the mistake. They’re cleaning it up,” Mayor Conway said. “But it would be nice if the mistake hadn’t happened in the first place.”

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