Norfolk Southern’s Ohio train derailment is emblematic of rail trends

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  • Norfolk Southern, the company behind the Ohio chemical spill, fought against a new U.S. Department of Transportation safety rule that may have helped limit the impact of this month’s derailment.
  • As railroad operators have faced more competition with long-haul truckers, the major companies have worked to decrease costs, including by cutting the workforce.
  • Overall train length and weight have both grown over the last decade partly in an effort  by companies to be more efficient. But, when an emergency occurs, stopping quickly with heavier, longer trains is far more difficult.

In 2013, a train derailment and subsequent fire in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killed 47 people and required all but three downtown buildings to be demolished for safety reasons. The following year, a derailment in Casselton, North Dakota, spilled nearly 500,000 gallons of crude oil and caused $13.5 million in damage, prompting the Obama administration to push for a new safety rule to govern the transportation of hazardous materials, avoid environmental disasters and save lives.

The effort to create a new safety rule was fought by industry lobbyists, including Norfolk Southern Corp., the Atlanta-based company whose train derailed in eastern Ohio and spilled chemicals earlier this month, leaving residents in East Palestine worried about their air, soil and water quality.

When the safety rule was issued in 2015, however, it was narrowly crafted and required only  electronically controlled brakes – which applies braking simultaneously across a train rather than railcar by railcar over a span of seconds – to be installed by 2023. It applied only to certain “high-hazard flammable trains” carrying at least 20 loaded cars filled with liquids like crude oil.

The Trump administration repealed the rule three years later, stating that its cost exceeded the benefits. 

Efforts to reduce costs including lobbying against costly regulation, increasing train lengths, reduced inspection times, and major cuts to the railroad workforce, have made trains less safe, labor representatives and industry experts told USA TODAY, making accidents like the one in Ohio a more common occurrence.

Still, in general, major derailments leading to public evacuations, chemical spills or loss of life are relatively rare compared to the vast amounts of hazmat cargo railroads transit.

We crunched the numbers: How often do train wrecks spill hazardous chemicals into neighborhoods?

Had industry lobbying interests not prevailed on the 2015 rule, the Norfolk Southern Railway train involved in the Feb. 3 derailment may have  been equipped with the better braking system, shown in studies to reduce the size of a derailment pile up when emergency braking is applied. 

“ECP brakes would have avoided that monster pile up behind the derailed car,” said Steven Ditmeyer, a former senior official at the Federal Railroad Administration. “In fact, depending on when the crew got the (error) notice from the wayside detector, applying the ECP brakes would have stopped everything very quickly. So I think it would have helped.”

Norfolk Southern did referred to the industry group, the Association of American Railroads for comment around lobbying over ECP brakes.

The Association of American Railroads spokeswoman Jessica Kahanek said in an emailed statement that several U.S. have tested out ECP brakes and found the brakes to have a “significant” failure rate and lengthy repair time that makes them impractical. When such electronically-controlled brakes fail, she said, trains become immovable and it can cause major disruptions. So instead, railroads use locomotives throughout a train to try to distribute a brake signal more quickly among cars, Kahanek said.

In a 2017 report, the National Academy of Sciences said it was unable to “make a conclusive statement about the emergency performance of ECP brakes” compared to other braking systems based the results of the provided DOT testing and analysis.

Competition with long-haul trucks pressures rail to limit costs

The rule-making saga and its ultimate repeal are emblematic of the politically and financially difficult task of making improvements to the nation’s railroad system that has left the industry mostly stuck with Civil War-era technology in its braking systems, even as other, new technologies meant to streamline operations, are adopted.

Railroad operators have seen increasing competition from long-haul truck drivers for transporting goods to such a degree that over the last decades its executives have instituted a business philosophy known as precision scheduled railroading, which focuses on maximizing the use of trains by the individual carload, that has led to longer, heavier trains crisscrossing the nation’s railroad tracks in the name of efficiency and better shareholder returns.

But heavier and longer trains also mean that when something goes awry, the consequences can be far more catastrophic. 

“If you have a very small error of some sort, most often a mechanical failure, you can all of a sudden have a very expensive derailment,” said Karl Ziebarth, a longtime transportation consultant who has contracted for the Federal Railroad Administration.  Ziebarth added: “All of these things (industry trends” together show the pursuit of lower operating ratio (or costs) may spin off in other directions and cause catastrophic failures.”

This photo provided by the Ohio National Guard, ONG 52nd Civil Support Team members prepare to enter an incident area to assess remaining hazards with a lightweight inflatable decontamination system (LIDS) in East Palestine, Ohio, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023.

The Norfolk Southern train that derailed in East Palestine was carrying flammable liquids, benzene and butyl acrylates, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The tank car carrying butyl acrylates was breached and the entire load was lost in the spill and subsequent fire, according to EPA documentation. 

The train also had five derailed tank cars of vinyl chloride, a flammable gas not captured by the Obama-era rule despite efforts by the National Transportation Safety Board at the time to have the agency adopt a broader definition for high-hazard flammable trains that would include those carrying flammable gasses.

The derailed Norfolk Southern train in Ohio resulted in large plumes of black smoke over the rural 5,000-person community, as crews did a “controlled release” of the hazardous materials on board to avoid an explosion. Residents were forced to leave their home for days, and upon returning, complained about the smell in the air, burning in their eyes and sick animals. Environmental authorities continue to monitor the air quality and residents and business owners have banded together in a class-action lawsuit accusing Norfolk Southern of negligence.

In a Norfolk Southern 2015 lobbying disclosure, the company noted that it lobbied both Congress and the executive agencies working on the Department of Transportation rule, and “opposed additional speed limitations and requiring ECP brakes.”

Norfolk Southern’s vice president of government relations, Rudy Husband, told Pennsylvania lawmakers in June 2015 that while the rail industry would comply with the new rule, it has “serious concerns about the ECP brake requirements and the potential adverse impacts on the fluidity of the national freight network.”

‘Very long trains’ emerge amid efforts to increase profits

In the company’s 2021 annual report, Norfolk Southern Corp. told investors it had concluded its three-year plan to transform into a more “innovative and efficient railroad,” reaching record levels of productivity across its operations, including increasing average train weight by 21% and train length by 20%. 

The Atlanta-based company’s railway subsidiary operates across 22 states and Washington, D.C., but it’s not the only company with trains that have grown in length. 

Average train lengths in 2017 were between 1.2 and 1.4 miles, according to data provided by two major railroads to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, an increase of 25% since 2008. And the Association of American Railroads, an industry trade group, found that trains have grown by roughly 2,700 feet, or 26 additional cars per train, over the last decade. 

February 6, 2023: A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk and Southern trains.

Norfolk Southern’s train in Ohio, at roughly 150 cars long, was nearly 1.9 miles long, the company said. Preliminary indications are that a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure occurred moments before the derailment and may have caused the crash, the NTSB said Tuesday. The train’s crew received an alarm from a wayside defect detector shortly before the derailment indicating a mechanical issue and then an emergency brake application was initiated, according to the NTSB. 

The labor union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, has noted that very long trains can lead to interruptions in radio communications with crew members or wayside defect detectors. There are no regulatory standards for wayside detectors. The labor union also noted in a presentation last month that very long trains can impact braking performance, decrease time for thorough inspections and increase the likelihood of catastrophic derailments.

The Federal Railroad Administration does not place limits on freight train length, but the agency states in documents that “existing safety issues may be exacerbated as train length continues,” including insufficient time for human inspection of rail cars, losing communication with equipment and people, and wearing out equipment more quickly. 

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is now studying the impacts of trains longer than 7,500 feet, with federal officials looking to see if new regulations are necessary. That study is expected to be completed in November, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

Longer, heavier trains make it harder to brake in an emergency

When a train using conventional air brakes tries to stop, the air pressure signal is sent sequentially at a speed slightly slower than sound from railcar to railcar, generating increasing amounts of “in-train forces” due to individual cars pushing and pulling against one another, as cars at the front of a train begin to reduce speed before cars at the back.

The longer the train, the more difficult it is to skillfully stop, and the more likely it is an emergency braking scenario goes awry. 

Over the last decade, as trains have grown longer and heavier, both the total number of reported accidents and the percentage of accidents on major tracks with 150 or more railcars have both gone up, according to a January presentation by the Federal Railroad Administration.

Freight train cars sit in a Norfolk Southern rail yard on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022, in Atlanta. President Joe Biden said Thursday that a tentative railway labor agreement has been reached, averting a strike that could have been devastating to the economy before the pivotal midterm elections. (AP Photo/Danny Karnik) ORG XMIT: GAMS102

Fewer and longer trains means data around overall railroad accidents can make it appear as if there have been fewer accidents over the last decade. But a USA TODAY analysis of federal safety data by rate of train accidents per million train miles shows that the rate of accidents has been ticking up for Norfolk Southern progressively over the last decade. So too have the numbers around hazmat cars damaged or derailed, with 14 damaged or derailed in 2012, a peak of 117 in 2020 and 85 in 2021.

In 2017, a 121-car Norfolk Southern train derailed in Pell City, Alabama, leading to a release of hazardous material with minor evacuations.  In 2020, a 230-car Norfolk Southern train with 78 hazmat cars derailed in Rocky Gap, West Virginia. Three of the hazmat cars were damaged, with the company chalking up the cause to railcars not being put in proper order.

Connor Spielmaker, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, said the company’s data on accidents along major railroad tracks, which impacts the public more directly than incidents at one of the company’s facilities, shows that accidents are on a flat or downward trend depending on the years selected for analysis.

But USA TODAY’s review of so-called rate of “main line” train accidents per million train miles, also consistently trended slightly upward over the last decade ending in 2021, federal safety data shows.

Railroad shed workers as safety incidents rise

The railroad industry has cut roughly 30% or 45,000 total workers since 2015, since deploying precision scheduled railroading. Since then, Norfolk Southern has shed roughly 40% of its 30,456-person workforce. By the end of 2021, the company employed 18,100 workers, according to their U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

Meanwhile, major railroad operators including Norfolk Southern, have paid out $196 billion in buybacks and dividends since 2010, much more than the $150 billion spent on infrastructure improvements during that time, said Martin J. Oberman, chairman of the North American Rail Shippers Association, in a speech in 2021.

In this photo provided by Melissa Smith, a train fire is seen from her farm in East Palestine, Ohio, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. A train derailment and resulting large fire prompted an evacuation order in the Ohio village near the Pennsylvania state line on Friday night, covering the area in billows of smoke lit orange by the flames below.

“In our view, I don’t think you can separate the drastic reduction in workforce over the past seven or eight years, from the increase in accidents, the rate of safety incidents,” said Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, the union representing rail labor. “What people see on the ground is a really big amount of pressure on moving as fast as possible, as lean as possible, and generating as much profit as possible.”

Regan noted that because there is no minimum inspection time required for railcars, the time taken for workers to inspect cars has dropped from two minutes to 40 or 45 seconds. 

There has also been an effort to introduce more technology in lieu of human workers or in place of a physical inspection, Regan said, but when such technology fails, the lack of eyeballs and workers to address an issue can lead to accidents.

East Palestine resident Kathy Burr waits for help at the Norfolk Southern Assistance Center at the East Palestine Community Center on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023, in East Palestine, Ohio. Ms. Burr says she had smoke from the train derailment billowing in her home. A smoldering tangle of dozens of derailed freight cars, some carrying hazardous materials, has kept an evacuation order in effect in Ohio near the Pennsylvania state line as environmental authorities warily watch air quality monitors. (Lucy Schaly/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

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