A year after Ohio derailment, U.S. freight trains remain largely unregulated
A year after 38 cars in a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, igniting a massive chemical fire, ProPublica reporter Topher Sanders says America's aging freight systems remain underregulated.
"I think it was a real eye opener," he says. "It really jarred a lot of people who looked into their own backyard and saw train tracks and wondered, could this happen here?"
Sanders and his colleagues have spent the last two years reviewing court and regulatory records of thousands of incidents involving trains for the series Train Country. They've conducted 200 interviews, including conversations with rail workers who describe how, in some instances, railway companies have sidestepped best practices.
"A big focus of the East Palestine accident was this machine called a wayside detector and its ability to tell crews and tell companies if something's wrong with a train," Sanders says. "Those are completely unregulated. There's no government specifications for how those are to be maintained, how far apart they need to be."
Sanders notes that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) monitors "less than 1% of what's happening on the rails" in any given time period. He says the industry also does not report the length of freight trains, some of which can stretch up to two miles.
In Hammond, Ind., Sanders spoke to people in the community who claim that blocked railroad crossings prevented life-saving care for family members, and led to their death. He watched as children in Hammond climbed over or under parked trains in order to get to school on time.
"The first day we arrived there, ... it was like a parade of children hopping over the train," Sanders says. "And we'd talk to them and say, 'Hey, is this something you do routinely?' And they're like, 'Yeah, man, two or three times a week, this is what we do.' "
Sanders points out that freight train traffic has a disproportionate impact on communities with the least amount of power — communities of color and poor communities in rural and urban areas.
"The freights are incredibly vital to our economic health in this country," he say. "Chemicals are traveling through our communities on a daily basis via the rails."
On the lack of federal inventory of freight trains
There's no inventory of train length in our country. ... The FAA can tell you at any given time how many planes are in the sky [but] the FRA cannot tell you, at any time, how many trains are on the railroad network, and they don't know how long those trains are. The individual companies have great detail about the trains they are running, and they know the answer for their trains. But no one knows the answer to the average train length in this country. The AAR, which is the lobbying arm of the railroad industry, they may have some global data because their members are these large corporations, but that is not data that they share. So no one knows the exact train length average or any of that in the country.
On how "precision scheduled railroading" practices of the last decade have impacted safety
Essentially it's a way of identifying where you feel there's fat ... making cuts, but then emphasizing keeping cargo moving, finding ways to limit the amount of times the cargo stops along the journey. It made trains longer so that trains and the cargo can all be headed in the same direction, with as few stops as possible and with as few starts as possible. And what that means is eliminating the amount of trains that have to start up. If you can turn what was a three-train trip in a certain direction to a one-train trip, now you've taken away the need for additional crews to run those additional trains. And so you're getting goods where they need to go, you're getting the goods to customers, and you're limiting the amount of money that you have to put out as a railroad to get it there. And so, all the railroads adopted some version of this, and they started seeing the profits come in heavy.
On rail workers speaking up about safety concerns
We heard that if you were willing to speak up about something related to safety on the yard that you were taking your career into your hands, potentially, and that you could face retaliation. ... What we heard most often was, "I'll keep my mouth shut about a safety issue," or, "I'll tell my union rep about a safety issue before I'll raise it with my manager, because I don't want to put my livelihood in jeopardy or face turning my manager against me."
On why local officials should know the contents of the trains that go through their towns
No one knows what's on a given train. Law enforcement and firefighters in your community, they don't know anything about what's on those trains as they're traveling through. And that was one of the pieces of the legislation, the Railway Safety Act, that universally was kind of applauded and people were eager to see happen because if the train does flip off the tracks and there's an unfortunate accident, the key thing to being able to make the community safe and get everybody where they need to be safe is knowing what you're dealing with. ... Knowing exactly what it is helps everyone make real-time decisions in the best interest of safety.
On the Railway Safety Act getting stuck in the Senate
No one knows what's on a given train. Law enforcement and firefighters in your community, they don't know anything about what's on those trains as they're traveling through.
[After East Palestine] you had, in the rarest of events in our country and in our politics today, you had a piece of bipartisan legislation come forth to say, hey, we need to do something about these wayside detectors. We need to do something about telling law enforcement and first responders ahead of time what's on these trains so they can possibly be prepared if something were to happen. And it was a solid bill of legislation that went to committee. It came out of a committee in the Senate ... and we haven't heard about it since. It's stalled. It's still sitting there. No one's taking it up. It isn't moving. And that's after everyone sat for a month and watched this town have to deal with the aftermath of this explosion and toxic release.
Amy Salit and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the web.
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