The recent freight train derailment and chemical fire in eastern Ohio that left thousands of nearby residents fearing for their health was not a one-off tragedy or a random life-imitating-art manifestation of Don DeLillo’s classic novel “White Noise.”
Instead, it was proof of just how dangerous America’s rail industry has become. The number of derailments has declined since the 1970s, but the United States still has over 1,000 derailments every year. And over the last seven years, the costs from derailments of trains carrying hazardous materials increased.
The precise cause of the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine is still under investigation. But we know it occurred in an industry that tolerates too many preventable derailments and fights too many safety regulations. During the Obama and Trump administrations, the rail industry successfully lobbied against stricter rules for trains carrying flammable chemicals, and against more advanced brakes that experts and the rail industry itself have said could lessen the severity of derailments.
Improving rail safety looked promising about a decade ago, in the wake of rising rates of hazmat train derailments. After a spate of catastrophes — including one in New Jersey involving vinyl chloride, the toxic chemical released and burned in Ohio, and a crude oil train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, which left 47 people dead — President Barack Obama’s transportation regulators began considering tougher rules for trains carrying hazardous materials. The proposal included measures to require stricter speed limits, stronger rail cars, more advanced brakes and better disclosure to inform state and local officials about the specifics of the hazardous materials passing through their communities.
During the rulemaking process, the federal government’s National Transportation Safety Board told Obama officials that new regulations should cover not only crude oil, but Class 2 flammable gases such as liquefied petroleum gas and chemicals including vinyl chloride as well. Regulators noted that freight companies should offer greater transparency about cargo to the communities living along freight lines.
Obama officials ultimately sided with a chemical industry lobbying group, declaring that “expanding the definition to include all hazardous materials is beyond the scope” of the proposed rulemaking.
Still, the Obama rules did include a provision requiring some hazmat trains to be equipped with the improved braking technology. Safety officials, rail executives and rail workers have widely touted that equipment as a major upgrade to the industry’s existing Civil War-era braking systems that could prevent some derailments. Norfolk Southern itself pointed out the newer systems could reduce train stopping distances by as much as 60 percent.
Charred boxcars rest near train tracks in East Palestine, Ohio.Credit…Angelo Merendino/Getty Images
But the rail industry turned around and began lobbying against the requirement, saying that the brake mandate would “impose tremendous costs without providing offsetting safety benefits.”
After a 2016 campaign in which rail industry donors poured more than $6 million into G.O.P. campaign coffers, President Donald Trump repealed the brake rule, and the Biden administration has failed to restore it.
All of this happened as rail company owners took home nearly $200 billion in stock buybacks and dividends and reduced their work force by nearly 30 percent as part of a so-called “precision scheduled railroading” strategy, despite workers’ warning that understaffing has made it more difficult to maintain safety and maintenance standards.
Flash forward to Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio: The roughly 150-car train carrying flammable carcinogens, such as vinyl chloride and benzene, wasn’t classified as a “high-hazard flammable train,” or H.H.F.T. — even though the fire was hazardous enough to require local evacuations. Three days later, crews had to release and burn five tank cars of the toxic gas, creating a black plume of smoke easily visible from passing passenger jets. Other dangerous chemicals had already spilled or burned in the initial crash.
Because the train was not classified as an H.H.F.T., Norfolk Southern “was not required to notify anyone here in Ohio about what was in the rail cars coming to our state,” Gov. Mike DeWine said. According to the chief of the county hazmat team, local firefighters and first responders arrived at the accident scene to find 100-foot flames and a strong chemical smell permeating the air, but no readily available information about what chemicals they were dealing with.
The train was not equipped with the electronic brakes that former Federal Railroad Administration official Steven Ditmeyer said could have at least mitigated the disaster. And despite the fact that the train was over 1.7 miles long, it had a crew of only two, plus a trainee.
Whatever facts emerge about this particular derailment, the federal government must move quickly to improve rail safety overall. An analysis by USA Today reported that America has seen a 36 percent spike in rail hazmat violations over the last five years.
First and foremost, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg can direct his agency to expand the definition of “high-hazard flammable trains” to include all trains carrying any compound that could explode and poison communities, including those released and burned in East Palestine. This change would help ensure that first responders are prepared and affected communities are better informed in the event of future disasters.
The Biden administration should consider bringing back the electronic brake rule — either through executive action or by demanding Congress pass a version of an earlier Republican-authored bill that would make it the law of the land.
But Buttigieg, the Biden administration and lawmakers should not stop there.
The Department of Transportation can finalize and implement a rule repealing the Trump administration’s reckless decision to allow the transport of highly explosive liquefied natural gas by rail, a move that triggered a lawsuit from 16 attorneys general. The agency can require rail companies to deploy heat sensors known as hot-box detectors to warn train crews of overheated bearings before derailments happen. The sensors do not currently fall under federal regulation. D.O.T. can also mandate railroads’ participation in a currently voluntary and unevenly used system that lets rail workers and railroads report near misses as they occur, helping regulators track risky practices.
And regulators can listen to rail workers and finalize a rule mandating minimum two-person crews on trains, as well as ensure expanded paid sick leave and other measures to reduce burnout on the rails.
Meanwhile, Congress can launch an investigation examining the rail industry’s safety procedures and the Environmental Protection Agency can make sure that the rail companies pay all cleanup costs for derailments. That would lessen the burden on communities, and create a financial incentive for these industrial giants to avoid such disasters in the future.
Even in America’s polarized politics, these measures could have bipartisan support. Already, Mr. DeWine, a Republican, and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, have called for federal officials to consider expanding the definition of “high-hazard flammable trains” to make sure trains like Norfolk Southern’s are better regulated. Mr. Shapiro also said lawmakers should “revisit the need for regulation requiring high-hazard flammable trains to carry more advanced safety and braking equipment.”
Similarly, Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota are pressing for a re-evaluation of current rail safety rules to ensure they prevent future derailment disasters. Those demands are being echoed by the Republican Senators Ted Cruz of Texas, J.D. Vance of Ohio and Marco Rubio of Florida.
It shouldn’t take a chemical cloud over a community in the American heartland to compel the government to protect its people. If we want to get train derailments much closer to zero, the rail industry must evolve.
Graphics by Jeremy Ashkenas, Quoctrung Bui and Taylor Maggiacomo. David Sirota, Rebecca Burns, Julia Rock and Matthew Cunningham-Cook are journalists at The Lever.