Ohio among worst in nation for train accidents and hazardous material spills, our investigation finds

Train derailment fuels calls for stronger rules

Ohio is third worst in the nation for serious incidents involving the release of hazardous materials being transported by rail, road or air, and after the fire and toxic releases caused by the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, calls are growing for more regulation and efforts to protect people and communities.

“Current rules for high-hazard trains were made for large shipments of crude oil, but those rules didn’t protect East Palestine and we need to fix that,” said U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. “We need to work with DOT (U.S. Department of Transportation) to create new rules for shipping hazardous materials to keep our communities safe. More inspections, better braking and other safeguards should all be on the table. We can’t let lobbyists stand in the way.”

Norfolk Southern, CSX Transportation Inc. and several smaller railroads travel through the Dayton and southwest Ohio region.

A 2022 high-hazard flammable train (HHFT) study that included Montgomery County listed more than 500 materials carried by trains that are hazard rated, said Deb Decker, the county director of communications.

“There was an average of 1.4 high-hazard flammable trains per week running through Montgomery County,” she said. “The highest count for one week was seven HHFTs.”

Credit: Mark Freistedt

Credit: Mark Freistedt

The study will help the county identify the hazards that most frequently travel through the Dayton region and better tailor the region’s response plans and training, said Jeff Jordan, director of Montgomery County Emergency Management.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine and in a preliminary report issued Thursday pointed to an overheated wheel bearing on the train. The investigation will continue and could take more than a year.

“This was 100% preventable,” Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy said during a Thursday press briefing. “We call things accidents. There is no accident. Every single event that we investigate is preventable.”

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The derailment occurred after a railroad wayside defect detector transmitted a critical audible warning to the crew to stop the train and inspect a hot axle, leading the crew to initiate braking of the 149-car train.

The subsequent derailment, fire and leakage of multiple rail cars, and later the emergency venting and burning of 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride in five tank cars led to the evacuation of a two-mile area and contaminated the air, water and soil, the NTSB said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered Norfolk Southern to conduct and to pay for all costs of the cleanup under a work plan approved by the EPA.

Norfolk Southern Corp. issued a statement Thursday saying they’d made substantial progress in the cleanup, pledging to continue helping the community with financial support.

“We and the rail industry need to learn as much as we can from this event. Norfolk Southern will develop practices and invest in technologies that could help prevent an incident like this in the future,” the statement said.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Calls for reform are coming from both Democrats and Republicans, with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine saying there need to be broader notification rules when hazardous materials are coming through the state.

Currently, companies must notify states of shipments containing certain radioactive materials, such as spent nuclear fuel, and Class III highly flammable materials, like crude oil, gasoline and ethanol. Ohio Homeland Security shares the notification with local emergency management and planning agencies, but it is not a public record.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

DeWine said under federal law the state cannot prohibit high hazard trains.

“But what we can do is to know that and to notify our fire departments, EMS people all the way along the route: This is what it’s carrying, these are the chemicals it has. It’s coming through at such and such a time,” he said. “If there is any problem you’ll know that that is what it is carrying.”

Railroad safety concerns

Overall, railroads are safe and they provide thorough information about the contents of trains to those who need to know, said Jessica Kahanek, spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads, whose members include all of the major North American freight railroad companies.

“The industry has also partnered with the International Association of Fire Chiefs to develop a mobile application — AskRail — that puts accurate, timely data to plan a swift, safe response,” she said. “The app gives them immediate insight into railcar contents and recommended isolation zones, among other features. AskRail was used in response to the incident in Ohio.”

Critics say trains are made less safe by deregulation and railroad industry practices, including the wide adoption by railroad companies of the efficiency measures included in Precision Scheduled Railroading.

“This derailment actually verifies our concerns. Since the implementation of Precision Scheduled Railroading we have been sounding the alarm for the growing potential for catastrophe in the railroad industry,” said Jared Cassity, a legislative director and chief safety officer for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, which is one of three railroad employee unions assisting NTSB with the investigation.

“Cuts in manpower and inspections, combined with reductions in regulations via waivers and changes have resulted in the deterioration of rail safety in the industry.”

Precision Scheduled Railroading led to cuts in crew size and longer trains, which create greater forces of compression and expansion on railroad rails, said Fred Millar, a Virginia-based railroad safety consultant.

“Larger trains are harder to handle,” Millar said. “And even if you bring more locomotives, if you have a problem on one end and there are two train staffers they have to walk a long way to see what’s wrong.”

Credit: Mark Freistedt

Credit: Mark Freistedt

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

“As the NTSB’s work continues, any speculation as to the cause or contributing factors that lead to the incident is just that — speculation — and undermines the overall fact-gathering process,” according to an AAR statement from Kahanek. “Additionally, 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.”

The group defends as safe the railroad companies’ staffing practices and use of longer trains. It 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.

“While 99.9% of all hazmat shipments reach their destination without impact, the less than 0.1% have the potential to dramatically impact the communities (they) serve. Railroads take this responsibility seriously and have no higher priority than safety,” the AAR statement said.

Ohio ranks 4th for train accidents

Over the last four years in the U.S. there were 6,886 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 total annual number of railroad accidents nationwide declined over the past 10 years, to 1,574 in 2022 compared to 1,776 in 2012. But the railroad accident rate, which is calculated per million total train miles, increased to 2.94 in 2022 from 2.41 in 2012, federal data show.

Credit: Mark Freistedt

Credit: Mark Freistedt

Rail transport accounted for 12% of the 1,574 serious incidents involving release of hazardous materials during transport between 2018 and January 31, according to data from the USDOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Eighty-five percent involved highway transport and 3% air, the data show.

Hazardous materials releases defined as “serious” are those that cause deaths or major injuries, the evacuation of 25 or more persons, closure of a major roadway, contain certain radioactive materials or severe marine pollutants, alter aircraft operations or contain more than 119 gallons or 882 pounds of a hazardous material.

There were 88 such incidents in Ohio since 2018, the third most in the country after Texas and California.

Those serious hazmat releases are part of a much broader group of hazardous materials incidents during transport, which totaled 386,687 between 2000-2021, according to USDOT.

Those incidents resulted in 241 fatalities, 4,813 injuries and nearly $1.7 billion in property damage, the data show.

Planning and collaboration are key to emergency response

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

“So there’s a lot of notification and response mechanism that has been built over years of planning,” said Matthew Haverkos, director of the Butler County Emergency Management Agency. “You can’t predict where catastrophe may come from and so we are prepared to identify what it is and then to mitigate that risk.”

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

But those federal rules do not come in to play if there are fewer than 20 tank cars loaded with those materials and don’t apply to highly dangerous materials like chlorine or vinyl chloride.

State and federal governments and the railroad industry fund training for first responders on handling hazardous material incidents and transportation accidents. And Ohio has a robust system of collaboration among first responders and government agencies, Haverkos said, including sending Level I Hazardous Materials teams like the one in Butler County to disasters in Ohio, including East Palestine, and elsewhere in the U.S.

“The long term recovery of this large scale incident is going to take years for that community to be made whole. And that’s why the emergency management process was put in place,” said Haverkos.

High hazard train rules

Federal rules adopted in 2015 set a speed limit of 50 mph for the high-hazard flammable trains and encourage railroad companies to work with communities to pick safer routes for those trains when possible.

The 2015 rules were formulated as the nation’s shale oil boom dramatically increased the number of trains carrying crude oil, ethanol and gasoline. The old-style train tank cars often punctured in derailments, leading to explosions, fires, deaths, injuries and environmental damage.

The worst was on July 6, 2013 when a runaway freight train carrying crude oil rolled into Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada, derailed and exploded. Forty-seven people were killed and the town’s center was extensively damaged.

Credit: see special instructions

Credit: see special instructions

New tank car regulations finalized in 2015 require rail tank cars carrying Class III flammable liquids to meet DOT-117 standards, including thicker insulated and thermally protected tanks, a full head shield, top and bottom valve fitting protections. The standards replace rules for the old DOT-111 tank cars and are designed to help the tank car better resist puncture and keep valves from shearing off and releasing the tank contents in a derailment.

The original deadline was 2025 but Congress in 2016 moved that to 2029.

Existing rail cars that don’t meet the rules by 2029 must be retired or repurposed to no longer transport Class III flammable liquids.

In 2021 there were 103,312 rail tank cars carrying those Class III liquids, according to a UDSDOT 2022 report to Congress. The report said 33,748 were older cars needing retrofit and most of them don’t have to get it done until 2029.

Calls for reform

In a Feb. 15 letter to the NTSB’s Homendy, U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, J.D. Vance R-Ohio, Bob Casey D-Pennsylvania, and John Fetterman D-Pennsylvania, raised multiple issues they had heard from constituents, outside experts and railroad worker representatives.

“We will use NTSB’s findings and any pertinent safety recommendations to advance measures that Congress and the U.S. Department of Transportation can implement to prevent derailments involving hazardous materials,” the letter said.

Credit: J. Scott Applewhite

Credit: J. Scott Applewhite

“Hundreds of families were forced to flee their homes, and they are now rightfully concerned about long-term health risks due to the Norfolk Southern train derailment. No American family should be forced to face the horror of fleeing their homes because hazardous materials have spilled or caught fire in their community,” wrote the senators.

The senators questioned if it would help to add regulations, including requiring advanced brakes, as well as more safety inspections and maintenance requirements for high-hazard flammable train rail cars and expand the definition of those rail cars.

They questioned whether rail cars should be subject to more through inspections and maintenance practices and if railroad companies and shippers are spending enough to maintain railroad tracks and rail cars used to transport hazardous materials. They also raised concerns about railroad staffing.

“Notification doesn’t solve the problem. The problem is they derail,” DeWine said. “There’s a defect somewhere, there’s a mistake, there’s a problem with the car, there’s a problem with the rail, something.”

“The remedies will come from the U.S. Congress. The House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate,” he said. “We’re asking them to give us some relief in this area.”


Top 10 States - U.S. - Serious hazardous material releases during transport

Between 2018 and January 31, 2023 there were 1,574 serious incidents nationally, with about 85% occurring during highway transport, 12% by rail and nearly 3% by air. Ohio has one of the largest rail networks in the country.

StateIncidents
Texas159
California103
Ohio88
Illinois74
North Carolina71
Georgia67
Pennsylvania65
Tennessee54
Indiana50
Oklahoma46

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation - Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration

Railroad accidents - U.S. - Top 10 states - 2019- 2022

There were 6,886 railroad accidents in the U.S. during the last four years. Ohio ranked 4th in the number of railroad accidents. Accidents involve derailment, collisions of all kinds, obstruction, explosion-detonation, fire or violent rupture and other impacts.

StateTotal
Texas794
Illinois557
California411
Ohio281
Georgia258
Pennsylvania252
Nebraska246
Indiana233
Louisiana232
Kansas229

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation-Federal Railroad Administration. 2022 data is through November.

Chemicals and Crude Oil by U.S. Rail
Trains carried 19% of the 948 million tons of chemicals shipped in 2020
Freight railroads carried 2.2 million carloads of chemicals in 2021
Class 1 railroads delivered 236,069 carloads of crude oil in 2021
The average carload of crude oil carried 650 barrels of oil in 2020
The highest volume chemical carried by U.S. railroads is ethanol
Source: Association of American Railroads

Credit: Mark Freistedt

Credit: Mark Freistedt

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