A drone footage shows the freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio
Drone footage shows the freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. NTSBGov/Handout

As US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) members gather in East Palestine, Ohio, today to discuss their findings in the Norfolk Southern (NS) derailment case, exceptionally long trains – a cornerstone of precision scheduled railroading (PSR) – have come under attack in a recent scientific paper.

The February 2023 derailment in East Palestine caused 38 cars to spill consignments of vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethyl-hexyl acrylate and other toxic chemicals into local soil and waterways, prompting the evacuation of the town. A decision to burn the chemicals to prevent further leakage, yielded a pillar of toxic smoke, visible in neighbouring states. 

A new federal rule, finalised yesterday, will require railroads to provide information about their cargo to emergency services in the aftermath of a derailment.

NS provided only scant information to first responders about the contents of the cars involved in the East Palestine crash, meaning emergency service personnel arrived at the scene without PPE or breathing protection.

“We were never given the heads-up about what was on the train; there was a lack of communication and we were never told to put on protective hazmat gear, so I didn’t wear anything,” a Pennsylvania police officer told The Guardian newspaper in February.

A research paper published at the end of May, The Relationship Between Freight Train Length and the Risk of Derailment, found that the risk of accidents grows disproportionately as the length of trains increases.

“Based on our analysis, running 100-car trains is associated with 1.11 times the derailment odds of running 50-car trains (an 11% increase), even accounting for the fact that only half as many 100-car trains would need to run,” found the analysis. A 200-car train would increase those odds by 24%.

PSR, a system introduced by the Class-I railroads in the 1990s, was designed to save money by reducing the number of engines and crew needed, while reducing dwell times for their customers. Prioritising speed, the Class Is add more cars – ie, ‘build’ trains – haphazardly, the researchers found.

Longer trains are harder to stop, cannot easily be repositioned into a siding to pass  one another and their cars are loaded in unbalanced fashion, meaning that heavier cars are often located at the back of the train – where they are most likely to cause a derailment.

Around 300 derailments happened in each of the 10 years covered by the study.

Consecutive hearings pertaining to the derailment have identified cost-cutting by Norfolk Southern as a proximate cause of the accident, with less maintenance performed on cars and tracks. Testimony also emerged of investigators being told not to spend more than one minute on each car.

In the case of East Palestine, the NTSB attributed the derailment to an overheated bearing, detected by trackside heat sensors, but leaving not enough time for the train’s crew to act upon it.

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