OMAHA, Neb. (AP) – The fiery eruption of a train carrying toxic chemicals when it derailed – sending a huge plume of smoke into the air and forcing residents of a small Ohio town to evacuate – has highlighted the potentially catastrophic consequences of train accidents and raised questions about safety on railways.
The rail industry is generally considered the safest option for most commodities, and federal data shows that accidents involving hazardous materials are extremely rare. But with rails running through the heart of nearly every town and city across the country, even one hazardous materials accident could be catastrophic, especially in a populated area.
Rail unions believe the industry has become riskier in recent years after widespread job cuts left workers thin.
“It raises all kinds of questions,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine told “Fox & Friends” this week when asked if hazardous materials are too dangerous to transport by rail.
“We’ve seen it up close and personal the last few days,” DeWine said. “This is a big, big deal.”
About half of the 4,800 residents of the eastern Ohio city of East Palestine and those in the surrounding area, including parts of Pennsylvania, had to evacuate as officials monitored air and water quality after a controlled burn of chemicals from the damaged tanks. The evacuation order was lifted on Wednesday after the air was deemed safe.
“I’m scared to come home,” resident Brittany Dailey said Monday before the order was lifted. “Eventually I’ll have to go back, but it makes me want to sell my house and move at this point.”
Ian Jefferies, head of the trade group Association of American Railroads, said 99.9% of all hazardous materials shipments reach their destination safely.
Federal Railroad Administration data shows hazardous chemicals were released during 11 rail accidents nationwide last year, covering roughly 535 million miles (861 million kilometers), with only two reported injuries. In the past decade, releases of hazardous materials peaked at 20 in 2018 and 2020.
“Railroads are without a doubt the safest form of cross-country movement of goods,” Jeffries said. “But the railways are also working to ensure that there are no incidents. Until we reach that goal, we haven’t gotten to where we want to be.”
Railways try to direct shipments of dangerous goods by the safest route. Most of the worst derailments in recent years have occurred in rural areas, but in 2013 a derailment in Canada killed 47 people in the town of Lac Megantic and caused millions of dollars in damage. The 2005 Graniteville, South Carolina derailment killed nine people and injured more than 250 after toxic chlorine was released.
Hazardous materials make up about 7-8% of the 30 million shipments delivered by railroads across the country each year. But because of the way railroads mix freight, at least a few carloads of hazardous materials can be found on almost every train except for grain or coal trains.
“Railways are a very safe form of transportation from a statistical point of view,” said Professor David Clarke, who previously directed the Transportation Research Center at the University of Tennessee. “That doesn’t mean you’ll never have an accident. It would be unrealistic if any mode of transport had zero accidents”
Some say that is not enough. An East Palestine business owner and two other residents sued the train operator in federal court on Tuesday, alleging negligence. Among other things, the lawsuit alleges that the railroad failed to maintain and inspect its tracks and railcars, failed to provide proper employee training and failed to reasonably warn the public.
Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Coalition, said he worries the chances of a catastrophic derailment are increasing as major freight railroads have eliminated about one-third of their workers in the past six years. Companies have switched to running fewer, longer trains and say they don’t need as many crews, mechanics and locomotives.
Before those operational changes, Regan said inspectors had about two minutes to inspect each car. Now they only have about 30 to 45 seconds to check each car. The signalmen who maintain the crossing guards and safety signals along the tracks also have larger territories, making it difficult to maintain preventive maintenance.
“They’re really just trying to get as much productivity out of these workers as they can,” Regan said. “And when you’re focused on timing and rushing, unfortunately sometimes things can fall through the cracks.”
Government accident figures show an increase in the number of accidents in recent years, although the numbers are still quite low at 8,929 last year. Accidents were recorded at a rate of 17.4 per million driving miles (17.4 per 1.6 million driving kilometers) in 2019, but this falls to 2.9 accidents per million driving miles excluding incidents at level crossings and those in involving offenders who are largely outside the control of the railways.
Regulators at the Federal Railroad Administration say past accident data do not show the industry’s new operating model is unsafe. But unions say the new system is risky.
“There’s not a lot of room for error,” Regan said. “And certainly when you have hazmat on trains across the country going through communities, we shouldn’t make any compromises on safety.”
Professor Allan Zarembski, who directs the railroad engineering and safety program at the University of Delaware, said railroads are continually working to improve safety and prevent derailments.
Railroads are developing new acoustic detectors to be placed along the tracks to signal if a bearing is about to fail. Thermal sensors have also been installed over the years to detect overheating of bearings, which is one of the most common causes of shaft failure, Zarembski said.
Federal investigators said Norfolk Southern train crews were alerted to a mechanical problem shortly before an axle failed and caused the derailment in Ohio.
Railroads and shipping companies that own tank cars are also constantly improving them to reduce the chance of them bursting during derailments. The walls and shields that protect the cars have been made thicker, more insulation has been added between the walls of those cars, and the release valves have been better protected to reduce the chance of them tearing off in a crash.
Railroads also invest about $24 billion a year in track maintenance and improvements to prevent problems.
Associated Press reporter Kantele Franco in Columbus, Ohio contributed to this report.