Ohio train derailment

Monster trains: US rail firms face heat over major environmental disaster

Image credit: The two-mile long 32N train derailed on 3 February at the town of East Palestine. Alamy

A toxic train derailment in Ohio, which grabbed international headlines in February, has refocused attention on the rail sector in the US, with critics claiming more frequent disasters are likely while private rail companies continue to prioritise profit over safety.

Rail safety in the US is being jeopardised for the sake of shareholder profit, union representatives have told E&T in the wake of February’s Ohio train derailment and environmental disaster.

The unions claims that record rail profits have come at the expense of the environment, human health and the wider economy, with the rail industry moving 20 per cent less freight last year than it did in 2016.

Earlier this year, a train owned by Norfolk Southern derailed in the town of East Palestine leading to the open-air burning of around 100,000 gallons (around 440,000 litres) of toxic vinyl chloride.

The US Justice department, and the State of Ohio are suing Norfolk Southern, with Ohio describing the accident as one in a “long string” of derailments and hazardous material incidents involving the company. Some of Norfolk Southern’s shareholders are also suing the rail company. They accuse the railroad of defrauding them by prioritising profit over safety.

Norfolk Southern’s largest shareholder is Vanguard, the world’s second-largest fund firm, which E&T revealed this month is also the third largest shareholder of Occidental Petroleum, the parent company of Oxy Vinyls, which owned three of the five train cars that contained the hazardous chemical.

The railroad company made record profits last year. Income from its railway operations amounted to $4.8 billion, up 8 per cent, or $362 million, year on year - an annual record.

Derailments are common in the US. In 2022, there were 1,164 train derailments meaning the country is averaging roughly three per day.

The union the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers told E&T that devastating derailments are likely to become increasingly frequent due to the adoption of Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR), a business model which relies on longer and heavier trains that require fewer workers. Most rail companies in the US have implemented PSR over the last six years, including Norfolk Southern.

A spokesperson for the union told E&T: “We think PSR is the biggest change that has happened in railroading in the last half-century in the US and that it is going to lead to a lot more derailments…There are fewer people repairing equipment, inspecting things, and maintaining roadbed.”

The union claims that railroad profits have soared while payrolls in the sector have been slashed by 30 per cent over the last seven years. “In doing so, they’ve eliminated a lot of inspections of both cars and track; they’ve slowed maintenance,” it said.

Trains are also becoming much longer. “Ten years ago, very few trains were more than a mile long. Now in the West it’s very common to have three-mile-long trains and in the east, trains are close to two miles. With longer trains, if you do have a derailment, the problem will become amplified,” the union added.

The union points out that many cities, especially in the West, grew up around the railroads. “If you have a mishap on the tracks or in one of these yards, it’s going to affect millions of people”. It notes that the train that derailed in East Palestine was going through downtown Cleveland, a densely populated area, just two hours prior to the accident.

At the same time as soaring profits say unions, the efficiency of rail freight has fallen. There has been a 17 per cent reduction in the volume of freight transported in the US since 2014. 

Volume of rail freight transported in the US

Image credit: The volume of freight transported by rail has fallen by 17% since 2014. Statista

Ron Kaminkow, the general secretary of Railroad Workers United, described PSR as a “misnomer”. “The trains do not run on schedule. The chances of a much longer, heavier, underpowered train departing its terminal on time and arriving at its destination on time are greatly reduced. The only thing precise about it is that is precisely using as few staff personnel as possible to get the job done,” he said.

Kaminkow said the added pressure of climate change meant maintaining staffing levels was critical for safety. “Now we have excessive heat, excessive cold and extreme weather like snowstorms. PSR doesn’t take these considerations into account. They are operating with as few personnel, as few locomotives, as few cars as possible…but there’s never a normal day on the railroad, especially in a big country like this. These trains traverse hundreds if not thousands of miles – they are monsters, getting bigger and bigger. It’s an obstacle course out there and there are derailments and washouts. If you don’t have extra people in the field to get the job done, then things rapidly degenerate.”

Extreme heat can lead to tracks buckling, known as sun kinks, which can be “deadly because the rail will kink and it won’t break the circuit, so train control won’t pick it up and a train crew looking at wayside signals can still have good signal and run on a clear, right into a kink,” says Kaminkow. While the authorities can protect against this by introducing speed restrictions during extremely hot weather, Kaminkow worries that climate change means there could be lots more of these incidents in the coming years.

Kaminkow said PSR was “a cost-cutting scheme to make stockholders more money: while there is nothing illegal going on, this is the nature of our system: the trickledown theory of economics”. According to Kaminkow, the wealth that has been “siphoned off” could have been spent on safety measures such as double-tracking, meaning that trains going in opposite directions do not have to share the same track.

Measures to combat climate change such as the electrification of the rail network are also being neglected, said Kaminkow. In India, he notes, up to 50,000 miles of railroad has been electrified. In the coming years India aims to have a fully electrified network. However, in the US rail firms have made it “very clear they are not interested in electrification”, he says. “It doesn’t jibe with PSR, because PSR is about short-term profits, and electrification requires a huge capital investment. They’d rather buy back their own stock and pump up the stock price than they would spend tens of millions on electrification.”

In response, the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the trade body that represents rail companies in the US, said many railroads had implemented PSR to improve competitiveness and that “locomotive technology advancements, infrastructure improvements, and operating practices allow for longer and more efficiently controlled trains”.

“One thing that has not and will not change is that safety remains the centre of the business,” a spokesperson said.

They added that privately owned railroads invest more than $20 billion a year to maintain and improve the rail network. This, the trade body claims, is a main reason the Association of Civil Engineers gave rail ‘B’, the highest score of any sector, in its last two Infrastructure Report Cards.

Despite these claims, the Ohio derailment has refocused attention for lawmakers on train safety in the US. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) said several new safety initiatives were under way since the East Palestine derailment. These include an ongoing supplemental safety assessment of Norfolk Southern Railway’s operations, and targeted nationwide track inspections focusing on routes that carry hazardous materials, it said.

Also, Class I railroads (the largest freight operators) have agreed to participate in the Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS) programme, which aims provides a safe environment for employees to report unsafe events and conditions.

While most freight trains have a two-person crew, some have long operated with just one person in the locomotive cab.

The FRA has therefore also issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) requiring a minimum of two train crew members for all railroad operations, apart from some exceptions. Norfolk Southern has lobbied against the proposals, which had been blocked by the Trump administration in 2019. Supporters say two people could more easily respond in an emergency but the AAR says no data has been found that shows two-person crews are safer than one-person crews

The Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has called for rail companies to provide proactive advance notification to state emergency response teams when they are transporting hazardous gas tank cars through their states instead of expecting first responders to look up this information after an incident occurs. However, it is unclear whether such a requirement will be implemented as it will need additional legislative authority from Congress.

The FRA said it had been “diligent in examining issues associated with the operation of long trains, such as train make-up and train handling”. It is currently informing a study being carried out by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) on the issue and said it would therefore be “premature to speculate as to any specific course of action”. 

The study, which will be completed by the end of the year, examines trains that are 7,500 feet (2,286 metres) or longer. The AAR said railroads have safely operated millions of trains that exceed 7,500 feet and that it is “indisputable that the industry's safety record has improved over that same period”.

“Railroads consider many factors when making decisions about the length of a train. The first consideration in any operational decision is always safety,” a spokesperson for the AAR added.

According to the trade body, railroads manage “in-train forces” by strategically placing locomotives throughout the train in what is known as "distributed power”. This reduces the chance that forces within the train will endanger safe operations or cause the train to break apart. It can also lead to better handling of longer trains on hilly and curved terrain and it allows quicker and more uniform application of a train's air brake system, the AAR claims. In addition, it said advanced "train builder" algorithms can help guide railroads on where to place locomotives and blocks of freight cars within a train to maximise effectiveness.

The AAR also says that elongating trains and therefore reducing the number of trains in operation reduces the amount of fuel required to move that freight. It has calculated that limiting train length to 7,500 feet could increase US mainline freight train fuel consumption by approximately 13 per cent annually.

However, states are pushing ahead with their own legislation. At least six are considering limiting train lengths while seven states this year have introduced bills setting minimum crew-size requirements for freight railroads.

Other proposals include requiring state safety inspections and empowering state agencies to speed up rail safety regulations. Utah is attempting to create a railroad safety office while Nebraska leaders want to facilitate the reporting of complaints about blocked railroad crossings.

In Ohio, weeks after the derailment, the state's House of Representatives passed a raft of legislative measures including a provision – a first of its kind – that aims to ensure the use of sensors that detect wheel axle defects in travelling. The technology is not regulated at the federal level and is used at the discretion of railroads. In East Palestine, the warning of an overheated wheel bearing came too late to avoid the derailment.

At the time, Representative Michele Grim, a Democrat from Toledo, Ohio told the Washington Post: “It’s unfortunate that it took a disaster to get movement on this issue, but we’re doing what we can with bipartisan legislation to help right this wrong and make sure it never happens again.”

Norfolk Southern did not respond when approached for comment.

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