East Palestine, Springfield train crashes: Is more rail regulation needed?

After a Norfolk Southern train derailed in Springfield one month after the chemical disaster in East Palestine, questions are being raised about the safety of the nation’s railways and the chemicals being transported on them.

In the weeks following the East Palestine crash, in which toxic chemicals were ignited and released into the air, water and soil, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Ohio and Pennsylvania have called for greater regulations for rail companies and more protections for local communities.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, in a terse Feb. 19 letter to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, wrote: “Major derailments in the past have been followed by calls for reform — and by vigorous resistance by your industry to increased safety measures. This must change.”

Amid calls for stronger regulations governing trains, the Association of American Railroads is urging policy makers to wait for the National Transportation Safety Board to complete its investigation.

“Immediate pushes for legislative or regulatory action absent of NTSB results and in response to the accident is premature at best — and opportunistic at worst,” according to a Feb. 16 statement issued by the industry trade group.

A Dayton Daily News investigation previously found that Ohio is third worst in the nation for serious incidents involving the release of hazardous materials being transported by rail, road or air.

Over the last four years in the U.S. there were 6,886 total railroad accidents, such as derailment, collisions, fire or violent rupture, and explosions or detonation, according to data from USDOT’s Federal Railroad Administration.

Ohio, which has one of the country’s largest railroad networks, ranks 4th in the U.S., with 281 accidents between 2019 and November 2022. Fifty-five of those Ohio accidents were in 2022, down from 85 in calendar year 2021.

The majority of serious transportation incidents involving the release hazardous materials occur during highway transport, the data show.

Of the 1,574 serious incidents involving release of hazardous materials during transport between 2018 and Jan. 31, 85% involved highway transportation, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Rail transport accounted for 12%, and air for 3%.

The dangers — and costs — of transporting chemicals via freight far outweigh those of transporting them by rail, said Michael Gorman, professor of business analytics and operations management at the University of Dayton.

“Railroads are safer than trucks, by a lot,” he said. “Nobody talks about the truck problem because it happens so often that we’re kind of desensitized to it.”

Rail safety has also increased substantially in recent years, Gorman said.

“Outrage does not a problem make,” Gorman said. “Rail has done a good job reducing accidents on its own without regulation.”

The Association of American Railroads defends as safe the railroad companies’ staffing practices and use of longer trains. However, critics say rail companies have long hamstrung workers’ ability to deal with these problems, lobbying Republican and Democrat administrations alike against safety regulations and cutting rail workforce by 30% over the last ten years.

Central to the controversy is Precision Scheduled Railroading, which allows rail companies to run longer trains — sometimes reaching two to three miles long — with a crew of two people, as an efficiency and cost-cutting measure.

As crews that staff rail lines get smaller and trains get longer, fewer engineers on board means fewer eyes to catch problems when they happen, said Fred Millar, a Virginia-based railroad safety consultant.

“Derailments are very frequent around the country, and they’re going to keep happening, in part because the railroads are taking new kinds of risks,” he said.

The Association of American Railroads opposes proposals to mandate a minimum of two-person crews for trains and the use of electronically controlled pneumatic brakes (ECP). Those advanced brakes were mandated in 2015 by then-President Barack Obama’s administration for trains carrying Class III flammable materials, but revoked in 2018 by then-President Donald Trump’s administration, which also relaxed rules for brake inspections.

The move has been widely criticized online in the weeks following Norfolk Southern’s high-profile train crashes. However, Gorman says, ECP brakes would likely not have prevented the crash in Springfield, as the train crew was not braking at the time.

Local emergency response officials say that their ability to respond to hazardous materials accidents has improved in recent years with the help of the AskRail mobile app and after adoption of the advance notification mandate for materials like crude oil and ethanol.

But those federal rules don’t apply if there are fewer than 20 tank cars loaded with those materials, nor do they apply to highly dangerous materials like chlorine or vinyl chloride.

Millar also says that in certain communities, particularly where populations are smaller, right-to-know laws are less effective, as emergency response committees — who are responsible for disseminating emergency response information — are understaffed and often run by volunteers. Additionally, of active firefighting personnel in the United States, 34% are career firefighters, 53% are volunteer, and 12% are paid per call, according to FEMA.

“You have to ask yourself, how many local eminent citizens want to get up and say to the public, ‘We live in a really dangerous town here?’” Millar said. “It takes a great big accident before anything gets done at all.”

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