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Multiple hazmat train derailments in the US over the past several months prompt questions about corner-cutting and malfeasance
Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Multiple hazmat train derailments in the US over the past several months prompt questions about corner-cutting and malfeasance

A train containing hazardous materials went off the rails Thursday in Van Buren Township outside Detroit, Michigan, just two weeks after the ruinous derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

These incidents, coupled with several similar derailments in recent months, have prompted greater scrutiny over an apparent trend of questionable train wrecks in the United States.

While Department of Transportation and Federal Railroad Administration officials have not commented on the possibility that any of the derailments have been coordinated, there are however a host of other reasons — such as the corporate prioritization of efficiency over safety — that may account for why derailments like Norfolk Southern's in East Palestine, though not wholly uncommon, were preventable and could prove more catastrophic down the line.

What are the details?

Below is a list of some of the recent derailments this year:

  • Feb. 16 Van Buren Township, Michigan: A train operated by Norfolk Southern had around six cars go off the tracks, at least one of which was carrying hazardous materials.
  • Feb. 13Splendora, Texas: A Union Pacific train had 21 cars go off the tracks after a collision with a tractor-trailer. Newsweek indicated that the tractor-trailer leaked diesel and oil.
  • Feb. 13Enoree, South Carolina: A CSX train had three cars come off the tracks. The scene was reportedly cleared in short order.
  • Feb. 3 East Palestine, Ohio: A train operated by Norfolk Southern carrying around 150 loaded cars, nine empty cars, and three locomotives had around 50 cars go off the tracks, several with toxic contents, including vinyl chloride, hydrogen chloride, ethylene glycol, monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene, and phosgene.
  • Feb. 1Detroit, Michigan: A CN Rail train had eight empty railcars derail and one teeter over the side of a rail bridge.
  • Jan. 21Outside Loris, South Carolina: Six gravel-laden cars on an RJ Corman Railroad line went off the tracks a mile south of Allsbrook.
  • Jan. 19Trinway, Ohio: An Ohio Central Railroad train composed of 97 cars went off the rails. No leaks occurred, reported the Times Recorder.
  • Jan. 9Lake City, South Carolina: A CSX freight train struck an empty car that had been left on the tracks; 25 cars went off the tracks.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Railroad Administration, there were 471 derailments in the U.S. in 2022. The five states with the most derailments were Texas (44), Georgia (37), Ohio (33), Tennessee (29), and Illinois (29).

These derailments resulted in $92,958,685 in reportable damages and four injuries. The previous year saw over $105 million in reportable damages.

Incidents involving hazardous materials can also be costly, although the true devastation is not fully accounted for in dollars and cents, as East Palestine has learned.

Grid reported that railway accidents involving hazardous materials inflicted around $17 million in damage in 2022 alone. Rail hazmat accidents reportedly dealt roughly $15 million in damage in 2021.

Federal data indicates that Norfolk Southern, which just celebrated "double-digit percentage growth in revenue and ... record revenue and operating income," accounted for over half the hazmat damages involving rail transportation in 2022.

For instance, a train operated by Norfolk Southern suffered a derailment on Sept. 19, 2022, in Albers, Illinois, spilling over 20,000 gallons of methyl methacrylate monomer, a combustible liquid. According to an incident report, the result was $3.2 million in damage.

Again, on Oct. 8, 2022, in Sandusky, Ohio, a train operated by Norfolk Southern spilled approximately 20,000 gallons of paraffin wax, reportedly causing $2.6 million in damage.

Devastating 'efficiencies'

The U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report in 2019 that accounted for some of the recent derailments: "Freight train length has increased in recent years, according to all seven Class I freight railroads. ... Officials identified increased efficiencies and economic benefits among the advantages of longer freight trains."

The report also states that officials from the FRA, railroad employees unions, and others have indicated that "longer mixed-freight trains may be more difficult to handle than unit trains in certain circumstances due to variations in car length and weight and the extent to which additional DP locomotives are employed."

Bob Comer, a railroad expert who has investigated a slew of accidents, told Grid, "We’re talking about a U.S. industry starting in 1825 that has put money first and safety last. ... They’ve gone to these longer trains, and they’ve cut back on their maintenance crews."

Comer suggested that longer trains means more cargo and potential damage on a greater and possibly catastrophic scale.

Jared Cassity, a legislative director for SMART Transportation Division, told Politico, "The longer the train, the heavier the train, the more wear and tear it puts on the actual rail itself, as well as the equipment."

According to Cassity, this wear and tear leads to "more unintended train separations, which is where the train breaks apart."

These longer trains are not necessarily staffed by more rail workers.

Republican Sens. J.D. Vance (Ohio) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) penned a letter Wednesday to DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg, drawing attention to the fact that the Norfolk Southern train that darkened the sky over East Palestine and sullied the waters "had a three-member crew overseeing the entirety of its 150 cars: a locomotive engineer, a conductor, and a conductor trainee."

"Current and former rail workers, industry observers, and reform advocates have pointed to precision-scheduled railroading (PSR), by which rail companies such as Norfolk Southern increase efficiency and drive down costs by moving more freight with fewer workers, as a potential contributor to the accident. We have voiced concerns with PSR, as well as with this administration’s prioritizing of efficiency over resilience in its national infrastructure and transportation systems," added the senators.

The DOT Office of Inspector General issued a report in February 2016 accounting for another potential reason why rail hazmat incidents appear to be continuing unabated.

The report found that the FRA had not "conducted a comprehensive evaluation of risks associated with hazardous materials transportation that appropriately addresses national level risk. Neither the National Inspection Plan nor the hazardous materials staffing process — two nationwide tools provided to regional specialists — produces a complete evaluation of risk. For example, both models assess how much hazardous material is routed through a region, but not the proximity of those routes to population centers."

Inspectors are allegedly provided with decent training and guidance, however the report claimed that complicated information systems and outdated web portals hamper efforts to enforce hazardous materials regulations.

Additionally, the report claimed that "FRA pursues limited civil penalties for violations of hazardous materials regulations and, despite departmental requirements in several DOT Orders, does not refer cases to our office for criminal investigation."

A failure to hold offenders accountable except for "serious incidents of non-compliance" apparently served to neuter penalties as disincentives for violations.

Bank of America analyst Ken Hoexter indicated this week that in the case of the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern disaster in Ohio, the railway may have to pay $40 million to $50 million in a "casualty charge," reported FreightWaves. However, on the top end, this would equal roughly 1.7% of its 2022 profits and amount to a drop in the bucket.

Jason Seidl, an analyst at the financial services firm Cowen, suggested Tuesday, "While the severity of the derailment earlier this month is still unclear, if history is a guide, the unfortunate event may not have much long-term impact on the rail carrier’s share."

The Railroad Workers Union appears to believe that the reasons mentioned above, together, may account for the kind of accidents that took place in East Palestine, reported the New Republic.

While the RWU contended that "the immediate cause of the wreck appears to have been a nineteenth-century style mechanical failure of the axle on one of the cars," the long-trend cause may have been the "short-term profit imperative, the so-called 'cult of the Operating Ratio' — of NS and the other Class 1 railroads — has made cutting costs, employees, procedures, and resources the top priority."

"The wreck of Train 32N has been years in the making. What other such train wrecks await us remains to be seen," the RWU said. "But given the modus operandi of the Class One rail carriers, we can no doubt expect future disasters of this nature."

Despite the calamity in Ohio, Ian Jefferies, head of the Association of American Railroads trade group, has suggested that 99.9% of hazardous materials cargo makes its way to its destinations safely, reported the Independent.

As dead fish floated down Ohio streams en masse and East Palestine residents contemplated possible tumor-laden futures, Jefferies noted, "Railroads are the safest form of moving goods across land in the country without question."

TheBlaze reached out to officials at the Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration, inquiring whether they are concerned with the frequency of derailments; what new actions if any they are taking to preclude future derailments rom taking place; and whether they suspect any of the recent derailments to have been coordinated. They did not respond by deadline.

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Joseph MacKinnon

Joseph MacKinnon

Joseph MacKinnon is a staff writer for Blaze News.
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