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Danger on the Tracks: What We Need to Do to Prevent Derailments That Threaten Communities

Accidents like the one that spilled toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, are all too common. It’s time to update rail infrastructure and safety technology while bringing stronger regulation to bear.

A freight-train derailment in Klamath Falls, Ore., in 2018.
A freight train derailment in Klamath Falls, Ore., in 2018. Each year in the United States there are more than 1,000 derailments.
A series of freight train derailments over the past months has increased scrutiny over the safety of America’s vital rail network — and with good reason. The derailment in early February of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio, spilled toxic chemicals and sparked a fire that posed significant risks to not only public health but also the environment.

It was by far one of the worst derailments in recent memory, capturing headlines and highlighting what has become an all too common problem. Just weeks after this accident, two more freight trains careened off the tracks, one in Ohio and another in Arizona. Every year, in fact, there are more than a thousand derailments in the United States, and, most alarmingly, there’s been an uptick in derailments involving trains carrying crude oil and other hazardous chemicals, putting more and more communities at risk.

Even more concerning, federal transportation safety officials say that, had better safety protocols been in place, the East Palestine accident wouldn’t have happened; it was completely preventable.

Yet if that fiery derailment has had one positive outcome, it’s that there is now widespread agreement that fixing the problems that contributed to that accident and others should be a priority. Updating aging infrastructure and installing advanced technology for an industry that hauls 1.7 billion tons of freight annually is in the national interest.

After all, many of today’s trains still use air-based braking systems whose designs date back to the Civil War era. And trains are not always equipped with the best heat-detecting sensors, which is what investigators suspect contributed to the East Palestine derailment, with a faulty sensing device failing to detect an overheating wheel bearing.

Bringing our rail system into a modern age of greater safety will require something that has been sorely lacking:closer cooperation among major stakeholders — the railroad companies, government regulators, labor unions and the communities sited alongside the main rail tracks.

Profits vs. Safety

The first step is convincing the powerful rail industry to beef up safety systems. Over the past decade, railroad companies have vigorously resisted tougher rules and regulations, focusing instead on an all-out drive to boost profits. For its part, Norfolk Southern has boasted about cutting costs, and in recent years has trimmed its workforce by nearly one-third while rewarding executives and shareholders with generous stock buybacks. But while the company maximized profits, the rate of accidents on its railways increased in each of the last four years.

The industry depends on an army of lawyers and lobbyists and donates to sympathetic political candidates in an effort to block new and practical safety measures. And it has largely been successful, stymieing efforts to increase the number of crew members on trains and impose lower speed limits on trains carrying hazardous materials.

In 2018, the industry convinced the Trump administration to repeal an Obama-era regulation requiring railroads to install the latest electronic brake systems on trains carrying hazardous materials. Also defeated was a mandate requiring railroads to better identify and label rail cars carrying high-hazard flammable cargo — the kind that burst into flames in East Palestine.
Harpers Ferry, W.Va., derailment
A CSX freight train derailed in December 2019 at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., sending several cars into the Potomac River. A Federal Railroad Administration report determined that the accident resulted from engineer error. (David Kidd/Governing)
But it would be wrong to simply point fingers at the railroad companies. Another contributing factor is lax regulation by the understaffed Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the small agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation that oversees the nation’s 140,000 miles of track. Critics argue that the FRA’s oversight is so weak that the industry can essentially regulate itself and set many of its own standards.

One lesson to be learned is that both the public and private sectors must take a more active role in ensuring train safety. The goal is to make railway operations both efficient and safe. Companies can be profitable while still creating well-paying jobs, investing in workforce training and maintaining staffing levels so workers are not stretched too thin.

Communities also need to feel safe and must be prepared for any emergency. To that end, state and local officials need to know exactly what is in those rail cars passing by people’s backyards. This is important because more and more trains are derailing on main lines connecting cities and towns. And emergency responders at all levels need to engage in regular joint emergency response drills.

Bipartisan Momentum for Change

In the wake of the East Palestine derailment, momentum is growing in Congress to overhaul and modernize the railways and close glaring safety gaps. A bipartisan bill from Ohio Sens. J.D. Vance and Sherrod Brown would do just that — boosting safety requirements for trains carrying hazardous materials, increasing the frequency of inspections and raising fines for safety violations. In addition, the bill would earmark $27 million to research safety technologies.

Badly needed federal funding is also in the pipeline from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law enacted in 2021. This will pump $1 billion annually over the next five years into strengthening the railway system, with a portion allocated for freight infrastructure and safety. Thinking longer term, as more and more federal infrastructure dollars roll out for a vast number of projects, government agencies and the rail industry must use that capital strategically.

There are a host of reasons we need our freight railroad system to succeed. One important reason is that freight rail is environmentally cleaner than truck transport: According to the Association of American Railroads, moving cargo by rail rather than by trucks produces 75 percent less greenhouse gas emissions. That benefits long-underserved communities that have been most harmed by the impacts of climate change with higher rates of asthma and other respiratory and heart ailments.

But those benefits can only be realized if the freight rail system itself is safe. And while we’ll never completely eliminate derailments, we must aggressively work to modernize our rail infrastructure. Congress, federal regulators and the rail industry must follow through even after the spotlight on the East Palestine derailment dims. With the best technology, common-sense laws and regulations, and the public and private sectors working hand in hand, we can start to reduce the number of accidents, minimize their severity and protect the most vulnerable communities.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Leader of public-sector practice for Ichor Strategies and a former senior adviser with the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority
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