East Palestine derailment. Credit: CBS News

There Is Something About Trains, Indeed

Kim Bellard

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Like many of you, when I heard about the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine (OH) on February 3, my heart went out to the people in that community. The train was carrying some hazardous materials, and no one was quite sure what was vented, especially when officials did a “controlled burn.” Still, though, I didn’t think much about it; although I live in Ohio, I’m about as far away as one can be within the state.

Yesterday my local water company shut off access to water from the Ohio River. “We are taking this preventative step to ensure the health, safety, and confidence of residents,” said Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval. (Note: it reopened access today).

East Palestine isn’t all that close to the Ohio River, but whatever chemicals got into the local streams eventually started reaching it, and a “plume” of them slowly meandered the 400 miles downstream to here. Initially, the water company noted how small the particulate levels were — well below any danger — and that normal filtering processes would take care of them. Then they announced that they’d add a second filtering step, just in case. I guess people weren’t reassured, because they still closed the intakes, if only for a day.

I can only imagine how worried the people in East Palestine must be.

The scary thing is that this derailment was not a freak occurrence. There are about 1,000 derailments every year. Fortunately, most don’t involve either hazardous materials or result in deaths. If it’s any consolation — and it shouldn’t be — most hazardous material spills come from trucks, not trains (but, then again, trucks carry the most freight). The odds are against bad things happening. But, with 1.7 trillion ton-miles of freight carried by train every year, the odds eventually result in an East Palestine (and there were train derailments with hazardous materials in both Houston and Detroit since East Palestine’s).

Credit: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

When I first heard about the derailment, I assumed it was poorly maintained tracks. Although railroad infrastructure earned a “B” in the most recent civil engineers’ report card, the U.S. has a history of underinvesting in infrastructure, the recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill notwithstanding. The freight companies claim to invest some $20b annually on capital expenditures and maintenance, including both the trains and the tracks, but when I see railroad tracks or freight trains on them, I’m not usually particularly dazzled; both look like they’ve been there for fifty years.

There was also speculation that the crash was due to the lack of more modern Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brakes, which in 2017 the railroad industry successfully blocked regulations requiring, but it appears that a wheel bearing overheated and failed.

One thing that critics point to is that the Norfolk Southern just recorded record profits, and had $18b in stock buybacks and dividends over the past five years, while seeing accidents rise. They’re not alone.

“For years, the railroads have fought all kinds of basic safety regulations — modern braking systems, stronger tank cars for explosive materials, even information about what’s on trains passing through communities — based on an argument that it simply costs too much to protect our lives, health, and our air and water,” Kristen Boyles, a managing attorney at Earthjustice, an environmental group, told The New York Times. “It’s disgusting to find out that at the same time these companies have been making massive shareholder payments.”

Keep in mind — these are the same railroad companies who do not give its workers paid sick leave, whose scheduling policies make Amazon look good, and who only averted a railroad workers’ union strike last December when Congress stepped in.

Look: it could have been worse. The train could have been carrying liquified natural gas (LNG). Adele Peters, in Fast Company, warns: “In a crash, a single train car filled with LNG could produce a fireball up to a mile wide and send shrapnel flying; 22 tank cars filled with LNG have as much energy as the bomb that destroyed the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945.” And there are plenty of other dangerous materials traveling through our communities that we’ll only know about when their train derails.

Despite all this, freight trains are still probably safer than trucks (although when there is an accident, ones with trains are likely to be worse). Our society could not exist without freight carrying them and the materials needed to make them. I just wish we prioritized safety more over profits.

Then, again, the civil engineers warn that our roads and bridges are crumbling, our airports and ports are a disgrace, our dams and levees are failing, our hazardous materials are poorly stored, and our water systems are extremely antiquated. We’re living with Third World infrastructure, and we don’t seem to care.

Credit: ASCE

One of my local news channels noted that, despite the water company shutting down access out of concern for minute exposures to the toxic materials from the derailment, there are some 37,000 water lines locally that have lead pipes, which put people at far more risk. The water company thinks it will take another thirty years to replace them. Out of sight, out of mind.

We respond in the short term to disasters, but we’re terrible about long term investments in averting or minimizing them. Despite the furors at the time, neither Jackson (MS) nor Flint (MI) yet have safe, reliable water after their respective disasters. Houston is still at grave risk of future floods despite the 2017 disaster. Pick a disaster, fast forward a few years, and how often have major changes been made as a result?

And, of course, one only has to note that we could have both dealt with COVID much better than we did, or could be doing much more to prepare for the next pandemic, but, if anything, we’re less prepared than before it hit. Planning, preparation, public health and safety are not our strong suits.

I get that there will always be accidents. Bad things sometimes happen. I get that more regulations won’t stop all of them. I get that, in total, there are probably too many regulations. I hope that the Infrastructure Act starts to make a dent, soon. But, come on, how many East Palestines do there have to be before we take safeguarding our health more seriously?

As a NYT opinion piece lamented: “It shouldn’t take a chemical cloud over a community in the American heartland to compel the government to protect its people.” Amen to that.

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Kim Bellard

Curious about many things, some of which I write about — usually health care, innovation, technology, or public policy. Never stop asking “why” or “why not”!