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A Year After Northfolk Southern Train Derailment, Railroads Pose a Growing Risk to Millions

In the immediate aftermath of the catastrophic Norfolk Southern train derailment that devastated the small industrial town of East Palestine, Ohio, politicians from both parties promised to take swift action on rail safety.

But fast-forward to a year later, and Congress has yet to pass any legislation to prevent similar action in the future. 

In fact, according to a shocking report from The New York Times, train derailments not only spiked in the months following the Norfolk Southern disaster, but there was actually a sharp uptick in incidents related to overheated wheel bearings, the very mechanical problem investigators believe triggered the East Palestine derailment.

East Palestine Struggling to Recover from Norfolk Southern Derailment

Although there were no injuries or deaths connected with the Norfolk Southern train derailment, the costs inflicted on the community of East Palestine and its residents have been immeasurable. 

Eleven of the 38 cars that left the track on February 3, 2023, were loaded with hazardous materials, including highly volatile vinyl chloride. Three days later, fearing an explosion, officials decided to burn the cars’ contents, exposing the community to massive plumes of toxic smoke.

While trains were able to move through East Palestine within days of the accident, the Times noted that the area of the derailment remains a “large cleanup site” nearly a year later. Two businesses at the edge of the disaster zone remain closed to this day, and others in East Palestine continue to struggle. Despite reassurances from the Environmental Protection Agency, many residents also remain understandably skeptical about the safety of the area’s drinking water, soil and air.

“We’re not really going to know the impacts for 10, 15, 20 years, right?” one East Palestine resident whose house is about half a mile from the derailment site told The New York Times.

According to The Washington Post, railroad cars loaded with vinyl chloride run through thousands of communities daily, including major population centers like Houston, putting millions of people at risk should a derailment on the scale of East Palestine ever occur again. 

“These accidents aren’t happening every day. They’re not happening every month. But it’s going to happen again,” Mike Schade ofToxic-Free Future told the Post. “

Train Derailments Up Over 13% Since East Palestine

The Norfolk Southern train derailment was initially seen as a reckoning for the rail industry and an opportunity to reexamine rail safety and how carriers are regulated. Yet a year later, despite big promises and bipartisan support, Congress has been unable to pass the Railway Safety Act, which would, among other things, require railroads to use more detectors to identify overheated wheel bearings.

And while the railroad companies insist they’re taking steps to improve safety and that those efforts are starting to show results, statistics from 2023 are hardly reassuring. In fact, according to The New York Times, data compiled by the Federal Railroad Administration shows that the nation’s five Class 1 freight railroads  — Union Pacific, BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern and Canadian National — reported 256 accidents on their main lines through the first 10 months of last year, an 11% increase over the same period in 2022.

Derailments were up 13.5% during the first 10 months of 2023, while obstruction-related accidents jumped by 21%. Incidents involving overheated wheel bearings were more than double what they were in 2022 and higher than any year since 2014.

The overall statistics would have been even worse had it not been for Norfolk Southern, which saw accidents fall 29% over the first ten months of last year compared to the same period in 2022. A spokesperson for the Atlanta, Georgia-based railroad credited the falling rate to several safety initiatives undertaken amid the intense scrutiny generated by the East Palestine train derailment.

Those improvements include the installation of 115 new detectors along its lines that, had they been in place at the time, might have identified the overheated wheel bearing, thus sparing the tiny village of East Palestine from environmental and economic catastrophe.

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