A train derailment and accompanying fire in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013 resulted in 47 fatalities and the need to remove all but three of the city’s core buildings for safety reasons. The Obama administration pushed for a new safety rule to regulate the transportation of hazardous materials to prevent environmental catastrophes and save lives the year after a derailment in Casselton, North Dakota, spilled nearly 500,000 gallons of crude oil and caused $13.5 million in damage.
Industry lobbyists opposed the effort to enact a new safety regulation, including Norfolk Southern Corp., the Atlanta-based business whose train derailed in eastern Ohio earlier this month and spilled chemicals, causing residents of East Palestine to worry about the quality of their air, soil, and water.
The safety rule was tightly drafted when it was released in 2015, calling solely for the installation of electronically controlled brakes by 2023. These brakes provide braking simultaneously across a train as opposed to railcar by railcar over seconds. Only specific “high-hazard flammable trains” with at least 20 consecutive loaded cars carrying liquids like crude oil were covered by this rule.
Three years later, the rule was revoked by the Trump administration, which claimed that its costs outweighed its advantages.
Labor representatives and industry experts told the Associated Press that cost-cutting measures like lobbying against expensive regulations, lengthening trains, speeding up inspections, and drastically reducing the railroad workforce have made trains less safe, potentially making accidents like the one in Ohio more frequent.
Nevertheless, in comparison to the enormous amounts of hazardous goods that railroads transport, significant derailments resulting in evacuations of the general public, chemical spills, or fatalities are very infrequent.
The Norfolk Southern Railway train involved in the disaster on February 3 might have had a better braking system, which has been proved in studies to lower the amount of a derailment pile-up when emergency braking is performed, had industry lobbying interests not triumphed on the 2015 rule.
ECP brakes, according to Steven Ditmeyer, a former senior official at the Federal Railroad Administration, “would have prevented that monstrous pile up behind the derailed car.” Using the ECP brakes would have immediately halted everything, depending on when the crew received the (wrong) warning from the wayside detector.
Therefore, it would have aided, I believe.
Regarding lobbying for ECP brakes, Norfolk Southern refers to the industry organization, the Association of American Railroads.
According to Jessica Kahanek, a representative for the Association of American Railroads, various railroad owners have tried ECP brakes and discovered that they had a “substantial” failure rate and a protracted maintenance time, which renders them unfeasible.
According to her, when such electronically controlled brakes malfunction, trains become immobile and can result in significant disruptions. As a result, Kahanek added, railways attempt to deliver a brake signal to cars more quickly by using locomotives throughout a train.
The National Academy of Sciences stated in a 2017 report that, “based on the results of the submitted DOT testing and analysis,” it was unable to “make a definite comment concerning the emergency performance of ECP brakes” in comparison to alternative braking systems.
What is railroading with a precise schedule?
The rule-making saga and its eventual repeal serve as a metaphor for the politically and financially challenging task of improving the country’s railroad system. As a result, the industry has largely been forced to use braking technology from the post-Civil War era, despite the adoption of other new technologies aimed at streamlining operations.
Long-haul truckers have become a more significant competitor for the transportation of goods, and as a result, railroad operators have seen an increase in competition. Over the past few decades, these railroad operators’ executives have implemented a business philosophy known as precision scheduled railroading, which focuses on maximizing the use of trains by the individual carload. This has resulted in longer, heavier trains crisscrossing the country’s railroad tracks in the name of efficiency and better shareholder returns.
The downside of heavier and longer trains is that when something goes wrong, the results can be significantly more disastrous.
“You can all of a sudden have a very expensive derailment if you have a very tiny fault of some form, most frequently a mechanical failure,” said Karl Ziebarth, a seasoned transportation expert who works under contract for the Federal Railroad Administration.
The search for a lower operating ratio (or cost) “may spin out in other areas and generate catastrophic failures,” Ziebarth continued. “These things (industry trends) together illustrate this.”
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Norfolk Southern train that derailed in East Palestine was hauling benzene and butyl acrylates, two volatile chemicals. According to EPA documents, the tank vehicle holding butyl acrylates was punctured, and the whole shipment was lost in the subsequent fire and spill.
Despite efforts by the National Transportation Safety Board at the time to have the agency adopt a broader definition for high-hazard flammable trains that would include those carrying flammable gasses, the train also contained five derailed tank cars of vinyl chloride, a flammable gas not covered by the Obama-era rule.
Crews on the derailed Norfolk Southern train in Ohio “controlled released” the hazardous items on board to prevent an explosion, which resulted in enormous plumes of black smoke over the little rural village of 5,000 residents. Residents were compelled to leave their homes for days, and when they finally did, they complained about the sick animals and the air stench, as well as the burning in their eyes. Environmental officials are still keeping an eye on the air quality, and locals and business owners have joined forces to file a federal class-action lawsuit against Norfolk Southern, accusing the railroad company of carelessness.
In a Norfolk Southern 2015 lobbying disclosure, the business stated that it “opposed increased speed limitations and requiring ECP brakes” and lobbied both Congress and the executive agencies working on the Department of Transportation rule.
In June 2015, Pennsylvania lawmakers were briefed by Rudy Husband, vice president of government relations for Norfolk Southern, who stated that although the rail industry would abide by the new regulation, it had “serious concerns about the ECP brake requirements and the potential adverse impacts on the fluidity of the national freight network.”
‘Very long trains’ start operating to boost revenues
In its annual report for 2021, Norfolk Southern Corp. informed investors that it had completed a three-year transformation plan to become a more “innovative and efficient railroad,” achieving record levels of productivity throughout all of its operations, including an increase in average train weight and train length of 21% and 17%, respectively.
Although the railway division of the Atlanta-based corporation travels through 22 states and Washington, D.C., it’s not the only one whose trains have gotten longer.
According to information submitted to the U.S. Government Accountability Office by two significant railroads, average train lengths in 2017 were between 1.2 and 1.4 miles, an increase of 25% since 2008. Additionally, the Association of American Railroads, a trade organization for the industry, discovered that most trains have increased by around 2,700 feet, or 26 more cars, over the past ten years.
According to the business, the Norfolk Southern train in Ohio was about 150 cars long and almost 1.9 miles long. The NTSB said on Tuesday that there are preliminary indications that the incident may have been caused by a wheel bearing that failed due to overheating just before the derailment. Shortly before the train derailed, a roadside defect detector alerted the crew to a mechanical problem, and an emergency brake application was immediately started, according to the NTSB.
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, a labor organization, has warned that extremely long trains can cause radio communications with crew members or wayside defect detectors to break down. Wayside detectors are not subject to any regulatory requirements. In a presentation last month, the labor union also made notice of how lengthy trains might affect braking performance, reduce the amount of time available for complete inspections, and raise the risk of catastrophic derailments.
Although the Federal Railroad Administration does not have any restrictions on the length of freight trains, the agency warns in documents that “existing safety issues may be exacerbated as train length continues,” including a lack of time for human inspection of rail cars, a breakdown in communication between equipment and people, and equipment that degrades more quickly.
Federal officials are investigating the effects of trains longer than 7,500 feet with the help of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to see whether new laws are required. The Federal Railroad Administration anticipates that the study to be finished in November.
It is more difficult to brake in an emergency with longer, heavier trains
When a train with conventional air brakes tries to stop, the air pressure signal is sequentially sent from railcar to railcar at a speed slightly slower than sound. This causes an increase in “in-train forces” as individual cars push and pull against one another as the front of the train slows down before the back.
The longer the train, the harder it is to stop it expertly and the greater the chance that an emergency braking situation would go wrong.
According to a January presentation by the Federal Railroad Administration, during the past ten years, as trains have gotten longer and heavier, both the overall number of recorded accidents and the percentage of accidents on main tracks with 150 or more railcars have increased.
Data on overall railroad accidents may appear to show fewer incidents during the past ten years due to fewer and longer trains. However, a review of federal safety data by the rate of railway accidents per million train miles by the Associated Press reveals that Norfolk Southern’s accident rate has been gradually increasing over the past ten years. The number of hazmat vehicles that have been damaged or derailed has also increased, from 14 in 2012 to a peak of 117 in 2020 and 85 in 2021.
The hazardous material was released in 2017 after a 121-car Norfolk Southern train derailed in Pell City, Alabama, prompting a small evacuation. In Rocky Gap, West Virginia, in 2020, a 230-car Norfolk Southern train carrying 78 hazardous cars derailed. The business blames the improper organization of the railcars for the damage to three of the hazardous cars.
According to data from Norfolk Southern, depending on the years used for analysis, accidents are either on a flat or declining trend along the company’s main railroad tracks, which affect the public more directly than occurrences at one of the company’s facilities.
Federal safety data reveals that, over the last ten years ending in 2021, the rate of so-called “mainline” railway accidents per million train miles has likewise steadily trended slightly upward.
Railways lay off staff as safety issues increase
Since implementing precision planned railroading in 2015, the railroad business has reduced employment by about 30%, or 45,000 total personnel. A little more than 40% of Norfolk Southern’s 30,456 employees have been let go. The corporation employed 18,100 people by the end of 2021, according to documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Martin J. Oberman, chairman of the North American Rail Shippers Association, stated in a 2021 speech that major railroad operators, including Norfolk Southern, have paid out $196 billion in buybacks and dividends since 2010, far more than the $150 billion spent on infrastructure improvements during that time.
According to Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, the union that represents rail labor, “I don’t think you can divorce the increase in accidents, the incidence of safety incidents, from the substantial drop in the workforce over the previous seven or eight years.” “What people see on the ground is a significant amount of pressure on moving as quickly, as lean, and as much profit as possible,” the author says.
Regan highlighted that the time it takes employees to inspect railcars has decreased from two minutes to 40 or 45 seconds because there is no minimum inspection time requirement.
There have also been attempts to replace human workers or physical inspections with more technology, but Regan noted that when such technology falters, the absence of human eyes and personnel to handle a problem might result in accidents.