The toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, is drawing new attention to the dangers of increasingly long freight trains — part of a series of cost-savings efforts by freight railroads that have drawn scrutiny from the industry’s critics.
The sheer bulk of the 150-car train that went off the rails Feb. 3 is just one factor investigators are expected to consider amid the unfolding ecological disaster near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, which caused a massive fireball, forced an evacuation and has left a lingering odor, fears of lasting contamination and thousands of dead fish. But union officials, regulators and congressional researchers say the industry’s trend toward ever-growing train lengths is causing a host of safety concerns that regulators need to address.
“The longer the train, the heavier the train, the more wear and tear it puts on the actual rail itself, as well as the equipment,” said Jared Cassity, a legislative director for the country’s largest rail union, SMART-Transportation Division. “We’re seeing more wear and tear. We’re seeing more unintended train separations, which is where the train breaks apart.”
The Ohio derailment is still under investigation by multiple agencies, including the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB, an independent agency, has said preliminarily that an overheated wheel bearing on one of the cars is partially the culprit for the derailment.
However, derailments like these typically have multiple points of failure, and the NTSB’s investigation will likely take over a year to complete. Such NTSB probes typically examine any conceivable cause that could have led to a crash, including equipment malfunctions, poor system design, the lack of safety precautions, inadequate training, crew fatigue and myriad other factors.
“One hundred fifty cars is a really, really significant [number of cars],” said Sarah Feinberg, who dealt with multiple oil-train disasters and a fatal Amtrak derailment as leader of the Federal Railroad Administration under Barack Obama. “For years, the FRA and other safety regulators have raised concerns about trains of that size.”
Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) raised the length issue in a letter Wednesday to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, noting that only a handful of workers were on the train before it went off the tracks.
“[I]t is not unreasonable to ask whether a crew of two rail workers, plus one trainee, is able to effectively monitor 150 cars,” they wrote.
Indeed, 150 cars is the FRA’s threshold for classifying a train as “very long,” even though no formal definition exists. In a 2019 study, the Government Accountability Office said 150 cars is more than twice the average length of freight trains operated by major railroads from 2008 through 2017. The GAO found that average freight train lengths had increased by 25 percent since 2008, and noted that some stretch to nearly three miles long.
The freight rail industry’s main trade group dismissed concerns about length. “Comparable length trains have been safely operating for decades and the industry’s safety record has seen dramatic improvements over those same decades,” said Jessica Kahanek, a spokesperson for the Association of American Railroads.
But the GAO authors note multiple concerns about train length, including that it can hamper crews’ ability to operate the trains, it can take longer for brakes to stop them, and safety risks can arise when firetrucks can’t get past multiple blocked rail crossings. The FRA wrote in a December report that it lacks the data “to determine safety consequences” of long trains, and in some cases doesn’t have enough authority to act on them.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine is also studying the issue.
Others, especially labor unions, say the trains are too long for crews on opposite ends to communicate with each other, and that workers on board sometimes can’t hear track-based warning alarms up ahead. “Our radios aren’t built for the distances that these trains are built for,” Cassity said.
At the same time, one industry analyst noted, freight railroads such as Norfolk Southern, which operated the trains in the Ohio disaster, cannot refuse to carry hazardous materials such as vinyl chloride, one of the toxic, flammable chemicals released in East Palestine. That’s because railroads are considered “common carriers,” which are obligated to transport any legally permitted product.
“The government does not allow Norfolk Southern and the other railroads to carry hazardous materials,” said rail analyst Tony Hatch. “It compels them to carry them.”
Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine pledged during a television interview Wednesday to make Norfolk Southern “pay for everything” needed to deal with the aftermath of the disaster, while Vance said in a statement that questions remain about the train’s brakes and DOT’s “regulatory approach to our nation’s rail system.”
Feinberg also touched on the brake issue, saying she believes that a type of advanced brake could have lessened the damage from the Ohio disaster.
The DOT under Obama had issued a rule in 2015 requiring railroads to use those kinds of electronically controlled pneumatic brakes on certain especially dangerous trains, in response to a spate of fiery derailments of freight cars transporting crude oil. But the Trump administration repealed the braking mandate in 2017, after a National Academy of Sciences study failed to conclusively determine that ECP braking technology was superior to others.
The type and location of locomotives used to brake trains is especially important for long trains. The NTSB final report on a 2017 derailment in Pennsylvania faulted the use of hand brakes and the arrangement of freight cars in that accident involving a 178-car train, which also released hazardous chemicals and forced the evacuation of a nearby town.
“I and many others have said for many years that an ECP braking system is a much safer braking system to have on” any kind of “significant” train load, Feinberg said.
Norfolk Southern defended the integrity of the train in the Ohio derailment, including its braking configuration. Spokesperson Thomas Crosson told POLITICO that the weight distribution of the train that derailed in Ohio “was uniform throughout” and that a braking locomotive was placed mid-train to help it stop properly.
The Ohio derailment has also brought intensifying criticism of Buttigieg, including from conservative media outlets that slammed him for not speaking publicly about the accident until 10 days after it happened. Progressives like Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) are also laying the incident in Buttigieg’s lap and calling on him to take “direct action.”
After days of calls for Buttigieg to engage more, the secretary weighed in Monday on Twitter to express concern about the people in and near East Palestine, whose “lives were upended through no fault of their own.” He also rattled off the multiple federal agencies involved in responding.
Railroad unions say the main problem is that corporate cost-cutting measures are eating into safety and raising the likelihood of disaster. This theme — corporate cost-cutting over safety — also underpinned part of why railroad unions threatened to strike last year.
Unions in particular target railroads’ implementation during the past decade of “precision scheduled railroading,” an operating model that focuses on minimizing workforce costs and maximizing equipment efficiency, including not leaving train cars idle.
Among the workforce cuts produced by this drive for efficiency were 40 percent of equipment maintenance workers, as GAO reported in December.
“We’ve heard reports from inspectors that the time they are allotted to inspect both sides of a rail car has decreased by 75 percent — from 2 minutes to as little as 30 seconds — thanks to the rail industry’s profits-over-people business model,” said Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department.
Kahanek from AAR responded that not only are trains inspected before departing a rail yard, technology along the track constantly assess each train’s soundness and safety as they move throughout the system.
Precision scheduling and other cuts made in the name of efficiency have worsened freight rail’s problems, said former Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), who chaired the House railroad subcommittee. “That was a huge change that reverberated throughout the entire North American freight rail industry,” he said. “And I think there has not been enough of a response by Congress to those changes.”
Railroads have been losing workers since 2015 and 2016, when waves of layoffs started and those who remained were made to work longer and less predictable hours under challenging conditions. Union officials say they’ve seen many seasoned workers with decades of experience leave the industry in frustration — even forgoing lucrative railroad retirement benefits — and railroads are now scrambling to hire novices to take their place.
The EPA has told Norfolk Southern it’s potentially liable under the Superfund clean law. But the agency said Sunday that the air in East Palestine is now safe to breathe.