Photo: NSTB.gov

The Norfolk Southern train crash in East Palestine, Ohio on 3 February may have derailed the Class I railways’ efforts to reduce crews – amid more likely fallout from the incident.

The catastrophe, in which 38 rail cars derailed, including 11 carrying hazardous materials, turned into a platform for political grandstanding last week.

Former US president Trump steamed into town to lambast the Biden administration for “betraying” locals with an ‘inadequate response’. He promised to pay for cleaning supplies for the spill of toxic products and provide ‘Trump-branded’ bottled water for residents worried about water contamination.

Meanwhile, a Republican senator called for the dismissal of secretary of transportation Pete Buttigieg for “incompetence”. For his part, Mr Buttigieg blamed the previous administration for ditching train safety rules.

All this played out while the National Surface Transportation Board (NTSB) was still in the early phase of its investigation of the incident.

Its report is not expected to be ready for months – likely a year – but the agency presented its initial findings on 23 February, which identified an overheated wheel bearing as the likely trigger for the derailment.

Two sensors placed along the track 30 and 20 miles before the accident site registered overheating, but did not trigger an alarm as the temperature was below the railway’s critical threshold. A third sensor near the derailment site registered a dramatically increased temperature and set off an alarm shortly before the derailment.

NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy urged all parties to refrain from speculating about the cause of the derailment before the conclusion of the agency’s investigation.

Not everybody wants to wait that long, though. The president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), which is assisting the NTSB in the investigation, has called for a regulatory push to enhance rail safety. Arguing that the railways and the Association of American Railroads have lobbied successfully for years against initiatives to tighten safety regulations, he said now, at a time of high public awareness, was the time to toughen safety requirements.

Last week, the Department of Transportation (DoT) outlined 15 actions that rail companies, the Federal Railroad Administration and other federal agencies, as well as Congress, could take to address rail safety.

It wants the railways to adopt a programme, in use at some passenger carriers, that enables workers to report anonymously potentially unsafe working conditions, to deploy new inspection technologies without trying to abandon human inspections and to phase-in modern DOT-117 tank cars ahead of the 2029 deadline mandated by Congress.

Originally the deadline had been set for 2025, in response to a 2005 crash involving a train hauling chlorine, but this was postponed after lobbying from the industry, while a mandate for the use of electronic-controlled pneumatic braking systems, implemented under the Obama administration, was dropped under the Trump presidency.

The DoT says it intends to pursue rule-making on high-hazard flammable trains and electronic pneumatic brakes, and to initiate inspection programmes on legacy tank cars and on routes that see large amounts of hazardous material. It also plans to move forward with a proposed rule advocating that train crew should comprise two or more workers.

The president of BLET noted the disaster in East Palestine could have been worse if the train had been crewed with just one worker – as the Class I railways have been pushing for. If there had been only one, instead of three workers, on board, the disaster response, including decoupling the locomotives and reacting to the fire, would have likely taken longer, he said.

Both the NTSB and the DoT have called for a mandate that railways notify state emergency responders in advance whenever a train carrying hazardous liquids is to move through the area. And, pulling out a carrot to incentivise safety initiatives, the DoT is looking at grant funding for programmes that modernise or improve rail infrastructure and safety.

On the other hand, it suggested that Congress should consider fines for safety violations.

The governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania have announced that the state attorney generals were reviewing the possibility of criminal charges over the East Palestine derailment. Some residents in the area have reported headaches, lingering odours and deaths of animals.

Given the mood over the derailment and widespread criticism of the railways’ push for precision railroading, which entailed cost cuts, longer trains and employee layoffs, it appears unlikely that the carriers can avert tighter regulations, with their plans to obtain approval to operate trains with just one employee in serous jeopardy.

On the other hand, they have been successful before in their lobbying to avoid stricter rules.

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