On the eve of President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, American infrastructure is back in the worst kind of spotlight.
The fiery derailment of train cars carrying hazardous chemicals on the eastern edge of Ohio has led to an evacuation zone across both Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Five of the derailed train cars are carrying vinyl chloride – a chemical that is currently unstable and could explode, hurling toxic fumes into the air and shooting deadly shrapnel as far as a mile away, officials said.
“There is a high probability of a toxic gas release and/or explosion,” Columbiana County Sheriff Brian McLaughlin warned. “Please, for your own safety, remove your families from danger.”
The derailment is, of course, felt most acutely in the surrounding community, where residents who don’t evacuate face arrest. But the incident also highlights the exact kind of concern that led to a considerable investment in rail projects as part of the $1.2 trillion bipartisan Infrastructure law passed in late 2021.
To better understand the derailment in Ohio, and how current or future legislation could help avoid similar situations, we turned to Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Southern California.
Our conversation, conducted over the phone and lightly edited for flow and brevity, is below.
What went wrong here?
Since the fire in Ohio is still burning, investigators haven’t been able to walk around the crash site.
But officials have identified the point of derailment and found video showing “preliminary indications of mechanical issues” on one of the railcar axles. The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating when the potential defect happened and the response from the crew.
LEBLANC: What are the investigators going to be looking into here?
MESHKATI: This accident will be investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, which is an independent federal safety investigation organization. They do a very good job and thorough job, independently.
They will look at this accident from an interdisciplinary standpoint. They’ll look for equipment failure, they’ll look for mental fatigue, the signaling electronics, and also they will look at the human factors and organizational safety culture.
The other organization that most probably will do an investigation is the Federal Railroad Administration, which is a regulatory agency, part of the Department of Transportation.
NTSB typically does an excellent job, and the FRA. Hopefully they will come up with some recommendations to proactively address this issue.
LEBLANC: How often do these recommendations actually turn into new policies or guidance?
MESHKATI: That’s an excellent question without an excellent answer.
The National Transportation Safety Board, they issue a report at the end of the year. They have something which is called the “most wanted list” that they put their recommendations for safety improvement for railroads on based on accident investigations.
And then it’s up to these different organizations or private sector regulatory agencies to implement recommendations. Again, NTSB doesn’t have enforcement power. They can make recommendations.
Hazardous material transportation by rail is more common than you think
Rail travel is recognized as the safest method of transporting hazardous materials in the US, according to the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration.
“The vast majority of hazardous materials shipped by rail tank car every year arrive safely and without incident, and railroads generally have an outstanding record in moving shipments of hazardous materials safely,” FRA says on its website.
LEBLANC: How common is it for freight trains to carry hazardous material? Is it unusual?
MESHKATI: No. They do that, and they do it fairly safely. Unfortunately, this type of thing happens, but they’re preventable because these are the types of accidents, if it’s a derailment – the causes of derailment are fairly understandable.
It could be due to the mental fatigue or the tracks or it could be the speed or not following the procedures.
Passenger and freight rail received $66 billion in the sprawling bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in 2021. Implementation, however, will take years.
LEBLANC: Once fully implemented, will the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package help prevent derailments similar to this one? Is there other legislation that could help?
MESHKATI: I think money and funding is important, but what we need – this is my personal opinion based on my 38 years of research – what we need in the railroad industry is dedicated, committed leadership to safety.
You can throw around as much money as much as you want. But see, here is the thing – technological systems are composed of three subsystems: a human subsystem, organizational subsystem and technological subsystem.
And they are like the three links in a chain. A chain breaks at its weakest link. We can put all the money that we have on the technological subsystems, get the better tracks, get better computers, get better positive train control and everything.
But what about the human and organizational subsystems? We need to give adequate attention to them. And that’s where a committed, informed leadership comes into play.
Who’s manning the trains?
When a freight train travels across the country, two people are in the cab of the locomotive working to keep the train, its often hazardous and flammable contents, and the communities they are passing through, all safe.
Now the railroads are saying that, given today’s modern technology, just one person is enough. But the rail unions say single-person crews pose a tremendous safety risk, not just to the engineer working alone in the cab for hours on end, but to all the communities the trains pass through.
LEBLANC: What are your thoughts on this proposal to staff freight trains with just one person?
MESHKATI: I have studied this issue for many, many years.
I’ve seen the disastrous impact that the consolidation and crew reduction could have on the safety of technological systems. This is something that we need to learn from other industries and just curb our irrational exuberance for this because the technology is available.
Yes, there is an AI technology that can monitor the routine pattern.
“That’s why we don’t need a human” – this is a very simple-minded, irrational exuberance.
This article originally appeared on CNN