Across the US last year, 1,164 trains derailed. Major derailments frequently make headlines, such as the freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio on February 3, which released carcinogenic vinyl chloride into the surrounding environment. But an average of three trains derail every day, most of which never make the press. America has become used to train derailments, to the extent that, according to a professor of mechanical engineering, “they are not really a major event.” This is precisely the message delivered by railroad company chiefs – but often it is their own lack of adequate safety and control measures that is the cause of these frequent, and sometimes devastating, incidents.
The aftermath of the derailed freight train in East Palestine, Ohio. Gene J. Puskar / AP
There are various reasons why trains derail. A major cause is track failure. According to George Bibel, author of Train Wreck: The Forensics of Rail Disasters, “broken, settled, spread, shifted, or overturned rails account for about 50% of the equipment related derailments”. In other cases, human error is to blame, either on the part of the driver, operator, or engineers. The Philadelphia disaster of May 2015 saw the derailment of a passenger train traveling from Washington D.C. to New York, resulting in eight deaths and over 200 injuries. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) identified the cause of the catastrophe – one of the deadliest train accidents in modern history – as ‘distracted driver’, who lost situational awareness and was unable to pay attention to radio transmissions. When blame is laid at the door of track failure or human error, America’s frequent derailments seem like the inevitable result of an overburdened transport infrastructure.
Industry leaders are keen for this to be the case and tend to minimize the severity of derailments. They stress how most occur within the confines of rail yards, often at low speeds, therefore causing little damage. Out of the 1,164 derailments of the last calendar year, 16 people were injured and one died. In 2021 there were 83 injuries and 3 deaths, and no deaths from 2018-2020. The trade group Association of American Railroads (AAR) says that 99.9% of all hazmat shipments reach their destination without incident, and that the hazmat accident rate has declined 55% since 2012. According to AAR’s head, Ian Jeffries, “railroads are the safest form of moving goods across land in the country without question.”
However, recent investigations have highlighted how cuts and loopholes exploited by railroad companies are at the root of many of the recent incidents. Freight trains are currently drastically undermanned. The largest railroads have shed 40,000 workers in the past four years – around a fifth of the workforce. Union officials think we are reaching a tipping point where cutbacks inevitably lead to more and worse crashes.
In some cases, there have been accusations of a real lack of necessary safety measures on trains. Referring to recent serious derailing incidents over the last two years, the NTSB said it was “concerned that several organizational factors may be involved in the accidents, including safety culture.” When interviewed about the Ohio derailment, Steven Ditmeyer, former top official at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), said the severity of the crash may have been made worse by the lack of Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) breaks. Under the Obama administration, it was mandatory for trains transporting hazardous or flammable materials to have ECP brakes, but this order was rescinded under Trump in 2017.
Others have pointed to the increasing length and weight of today’s trains: many freight trains in the west stretch to two, sometimes three, miles long (consistently longer than at any time in the country’s history). For the railroad companies, this is the most cost-efficient way of operating. As one railroad CEO put it in 2013, “we’re driving longer and longer trains, which means fewer train starts, faster network velocity and better service at lower cost.”
But, according to experts, longer trains are heavier and harder to control on hills. This is evidenced by the near-catastrophic derailment of a two-mile-long CSX train into the town of Hyndman, Pennsylvania in August 2017, which occurred when the train was on a hilly descent. Across the country, lawmakers have tried to limit the length of the trains that threaten to derail in their communities, but with little success. The biggest opponents are the major railroad companies, who claim it’s a union ploy to create jobs.
America's freight trains have been getting longer over the decades.
Railroad company CEOs are correct in stating that, despite America’s high number of derailments, very few result in death or serious injury. However, the environmental damage they cause cannot be understated. The Department of Transportation has registered more than 12,4000 train derailments over the past decade: of these, roughly 6,600 were carrying hazardous materials, of which 348 cars released their contents. Water contamination is common in these cases because so many rail tracks run alongside the nation’s waterways. In past decades, derailments have occurred perilously close to rivers across the country, including in Alabama, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Oregon, Iowa, and West Virginia. According to Fritz Edler, a spokesman for the union group Railroad Workers United, “Railroads are next to rivers everywhere, and we don’t get to distinguish where we have a derailment.”
Environmental concerns inevitably mean a high cost in human evacuations and displacement. Following the derailment and subsequent toxic fires in East Palestine, Ohio Senators Sherrod Brown and JD Vance (a Democrat and Republic respectively) argued, “No American family should be forced to face the horror of fleeing their homes because hazardous materials have spilled or caught fire in their community.” These Senators have introduced a bill that would require increased planning for disasters, as well as limits on train size and weight. According to Senator Brown, “The railroad’s got a lot of questions they’ve got to answer and they haven’t really done it very well yet.”