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The Ohio Train Derailment: What Does This Catastrophe Teach Us About The State Of The Rail Industry

Earlier last month a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed and exploded near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, the subsequent spillage led to the evacuation of thousands of residents and a controlled burn of the chemicals to limit the potential of a full-scale explosion.

The event is a severe wake-up call to authorities to the potential of far more serious incidents. Although there have so far been no deaths following the Ohio derailment there are concerns over the health implications following exposure to such leaked chemicals.

In particular, concerns have been raised over the burning of the chemicals creating a phosgene and hydrogen chloride plume across the region, a toxic gas which was used as a weapon in the first World War to cause vomiting and breathing issues.

The exact cause of the derailment is unknown and it could be months until investigators come to a clear conclusion. However, reports already suggest that cuts led to ineffective oversight and self-monitoring which brought an already struggling industry to its knees.

Ron Kaminkow, an Amtrak locomotive engineer and former Norfolk Southern freight engineer said, “The Palestine wreck is the tip of the iceberg and a red flag.” Kaminkow, who is secretary for the Railroad Workers United, a non-profit labor group that coordinates with the nation’s rail unions went on to say, “If something is not done, then it’s going to get worse, and the next derailment could be cataclysmic.”

According to the US Department of Transportation, hazardous materials are transported by rail at a rate of approximately 12,000 cars per day, amounting to roughly 4.5 million tons of toxic chemicals shipped annually. Unfortunately, there have been several accidents in recent years, including the explosion of a runaway train in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, which resulted in the deaths of 47 individuals. Additionally, there have been incidents such as the derailment and explosion of a crude oil train in Guernsey, Saskatchewan, and a derailment and fire involving an ethanol train in Kentucky.

The region of Pittsburgh has experienced eight train derailments over the last five years, with approximately 1,700 occurring nationwide, according to the advocacy group Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh (RPPP). These incidents highlight the various ways in which things can go wrong. For instance, a 2018 derailment was caused by a track crack that was ignored by rail companies. In another accident, a train collided with a dump truck at a crossing that lacked proper safety equipment.

The wreckage of the Norfolk Southern train derailment (Photo: NTSB)

With this in mind, rail transport is expected to increase throughout Ohio as a new Shell plastic plant starts up. The recent approval by the US Department of Transportation (DoT) to allow the transportation of liquefied natural gas (LNG) via rail without additional safety regulations has raised concerns among experts and lawmakers. The rule allows trains to transport 100 or more tank cars filled with up to 30,000 gallons of LNG, primarily from shale fields to saltwater ports.

While proponents of the rule argue that it will provide a more cost-effective and efficient means of transporting natural gas, critics argue that it poses significant safety risks. LNG is a highly volatile and flammable substance, and a derailment or accident involving a train carrying large quantities of it could be catastrophic.

Under the Biden administration, the Department of Transportation has taken steps to address concerns about the transportation of liquefied natural gas (LNG) via rail. In particular, the administration has proposed a suspension of the Trump-era LNG rule, which allowed the substance to be transported via rail without additional safety regulations.

The proposed suspension would replace the existing rule with a new one that includes additional safety measures to mitigate the risks associated with transporting hazardous materials. However, the implementation of the new rule has been delayed twice, with the latest deadline now set for this month.

With more toxic chemicals being transported rail infrastructure alongside its workers are overstretched. Between 2018-2019, 20,000 rail workers were made redundant and the total number of workers dipped below 200,000 for the first time ever. “They have cut the hell out of the workforce, and there are big plans to cut it further,” Kaminkow said. “Just because the rail companies are profitable doesn’t mean they’re healthy.”

Initial reports suggest the train had not been properly inspected before it started its journey. According to the Railroad Workers United, the East Palestine train was rushed and not properly inspected, potentially leading to the derailment. The non-profit organization has pointed to a reduction in inspection staff and the elimination of safety protocols as the cause of the problem.


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