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  • Allen Czermak

Was That Another Train Derailment?

Most of us are not that familiar with the importance of cargo transportation via rail but ever since Cornelius Vanderbilt railroad expansion in 1869 the domestic rail lines have been the economic arteries of the United States. Whether it’s intermodal shipping containers, coal, fuel, and grains, these hunks of steel transfer tons of cargo daily making the cost of transporting the goods fair rather than expensive traditional truck shipping.

But what has transpired over the past year has put railroad companies in the media spotlight. Numerous pictures of train derailments have surfaced all across the internet and have become major stories from news outlets. Trains that have been crushed, burned, overturned, and smoking of unhealthy chemicals have gained national attention and that is not good for a struggling rail industry.

On March 4, 2023 a Norfolk Southern train derailed in Springfield, Ohio sending 28 rail cars off the track including four tankers. Luckily the tankers that derailed were filled with non-hazardous materials that could have potentially led to a local evacuation near the spot of the accident. The Springfield, Ohio train derailment caused a mess of scattered rail cars, damage to tracks, destruction of railroad crossing gates, and closure of Ohio State Route 41.

But that was not the only train derailment for Norfolk Southern Railway Company. Since October of 2022 there have already been five train derailments in the State of Ohio. This has put the company on Washington's hot seat as government officials demand answers for uptick in recent rail accidents.

The most notable train derailment was the one on February 3, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio. This led to a month of health concerns for residents after hazardous chemicals spilled and were released into the environment. The community of East Palestine was forced to evacuate and still leaves many of its residents in limbo taking up temporary residence in motels and with friends and family outside the tainted environment. Months after the accident, community members are finding chemical substances in streams and wet grounds which leave people to speculate that the cleanup could potentially take decades. With that knowledge the public of East Palestine is simply not comfortable to move back into their homes where basic water that comes from the shower and tap might contain hazardous materials.

One month after the East Palestine train derailment the State of Ohio is suing the Norfolk Southern Railway Company for the damage to 1900 feet of train tracks that had to be removed. In addition, there are other costs relevant to the environment that are also being claimed in the lawsuit. According to Fox Business, the price tag for the cleanup is $387 million and that does not even include the current lawsuit by the State of Ohio. It will take years to figure out what the East Palestine train derailment will cost Norfolk Southern.

What Is The Cause For The Recent Spike In Train Derailments?

To put things into perspective we have to look at the occurrence of train derailments since 2003 from five major rail lines that include Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern, BNSF, CSX, and Union Pacific. As for Kansas City Southern they are now Canadian Pacific Kansas City or better known as CPKC.

It would probably surprise most major media outlets but ever since 2003 Norfolk Southern Railway Company had held a pretty steady line when it came to train derailments. There was a slight uptick in train derailments from 2017 to 2020 but ever since then it seems to have come back down. The two companies that overwhelmingly stood out were the Kansas City Southern and Canadian Pacific. In 2004 Canadian Pacific had 5.04 train derailments and in 2005 Kansas City Southern had 6.2 train derailments. What is most ironic is that these two rail companies had joined and became CPKC but Norfolk Southern by far seemed to have a far better safety record then its competitors.

But the problem for Norfolk Southern was the timing of media coverage. It was a lot easier for a company to get away with a train derailment at the turn of the century than today where everything and everyone's story is amplified all across the internet. Seeing mangled train cars strewn all across the tracks with smoke billowing up is viral content for any age. That is why even with a good track record, Norfolk Southern is subject to pay the price of the recent accidents. Hopefully the negative exposure will cause rail companies to rethink their current safety strategy and implement new measures through the use of technology and hiring more staff to keep both engineers and the communities that these trains run through protected from any harm.

The Dying Coal Industry

One of the main customers of the rail industry in the past century are the coal companies. The primary method of transportation of coal across the country is via rail. That’s why most coal yards will be situated near a rail yard where an empty plain gondola can be loaded with coal and distribute the raw commodity all throughout the United States.

In the past coal served as a purpose of fueling trains, ships, and many types of machines that assisted in making the USA great from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. But that time has come and gone and now there are alternate forms of energy that are better for the world. When coal burns, sulfur and nitrogen are released into the air having a negative impact on our environment. Today we have petroleum energy, electric energy, solar energy, wind energy, geothermal energy, hydropower, ocean energy, and bioenergy. These have all contributed to causing the demand for coal to decline astronomically.

What has once been a staple for the rail companies is becoming obsolete and their primary customer is dying. Anytime there is a drastic impact on revenues companies must compensate to stay in business. That means longer trains and less engineers on staff to make sure all is operating well. As per the East Palestine train derailment there were a total of 148 rail cars that were over 10,000 feet long (that is a little over 2 miles long). Now who exactly is inspecting all these rail cars to make sure all is operating correctly? Are the wheel bearings oiled properly? Are the rail cars that are coupled together securely attached? Is the air braking system working from the first car to the last car? These are just a handful of safety checks for a class one train transporting many cargo cars.

Poor Infrastructure

As with every argument there are two sides. Just like the State of Ohio is blaming Norfolk Southern claiming that the right safety measures were not put in place, the rail company is blaming the poor infrastructure and track systems that are outdated. Though the last report card is rail infrastructure received a B there is still room for improvement and the rail companies claim that many of the lines have not been replaced in ages.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica the U.S. railways are privately owned and operated, though the Consolidated Rail Corporation which was established by the federal government. That means that there are a lot of private companies that need to approve expansion and maintenance rail track projects that can sometimes take years before anything is done. But if that is the case then the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) can do a thorough investigation into who is at fault. The current findings by the NTSB in the East Palestine train derailment had found that the train had three crew members that included one trainee that were operating the 149 rail cars during the derailment. Seems like the issue was not the tracks but the trains owned by Norfolk Southern.

Length Of Class 1 Trains Are Increasing

Another way of compensating to make the rail companies more lucrative is by adding more trains that are being pulled by a single engineer. According to a couple of reports, the overall length of trains increased by 33% from 2011 to 2021, and trains over 10,000 feet long increased from 3% in 2017 to 25% in 2021. That means that trains are now longer than ever and there is no increased oversight for a single operator. When a train derails there is a good chance that the operator 10,000 feet ahead has no idea it happened until minutes later.

Where we are now with the length of trains rapidly increasing the only solution would be to use technology to prevent accidents from happening. Positive Train Control (PTC) is a system installed on rail cars that is designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, over-speed derailments, and incursions. If there is an error detected that can potentially lead to an accident the operator will be notified if it cannot correct itself. PTC must be a standard requirement for freight trains even if they are miles long. Just like DOT has required passenger trains to be equipped with PTC the same must be for freight trains.

Final Words

On Saturday, April 15, 2023 there was another freight train derailment in rural Maine near the Village of Rockwood. The tracks run along the rim of Moosehead Lake which has some of the most breathtaking views of nature in its finest. Three locomotives were involved in the accident and have been leaking diesel fuel into the soil in the nearby Moosehead Lake region. What was once a paradise of nature has been tainted and will take a long time until the environment becomes pure from the remnants of diesel fuel.

Most train derailments cause little to no damage and often go unreported because no one knows that they occur mostly in rail yards. With many rail cars parked in a condensed area it’s like a game of ThinkFun Rush Hour Traffic Jam where it’s common for accidents to happen. The main problem is that when there is a train derailment that occurs in a populated area the repercussions are dreadful. Besides the actual damage to the rail cars and tracks, there is often hazardous material that penetrates water systems and air quality. This could be harmful to any human being, especially the young, elderly, and those with compromised immune systems.

Our hope is that the freight train industry will embrace technology and implement systems like Positive Train Control (PTC) on all the rail cars to alert engineers if the train can potentially derail. In most cases the engineer who is sometimes 10,000 feet away from the very last car has no idea what is happening so far ahead. Even if there is one less derailment it’s worth it. Right now the people of East Palestine seem to have lost their confidence in local officials and are very nervous about the long term effects of being exposed to hazardous materials. No one should ever have to experience being evacuated because of a nearby train derailment ever again.

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