East Palestine Has Put Railroads Under a Cloud of Suspicion: Analysis

By Bill Stephens | April 7, 2023

Railroads can and must do better at preventing derailments

All the positive freight railroad safety statistics in the world — like more than 99.9% of hazardous materials shipments arriving without incident — can’t overcome that image of a towering column of black smoke rising from East Palestine, Ohio.

The toxic cloud from the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern derailment did far more than upend 4,700 lives in East Palestine. It made people in trackside cities and towns across the U.S. wonder: What if that happened here? And an intense media spotlight on subsequent derailments has made it seem like no one can keep their trains on the rails.

So now there’s a rush in Washington to introduce more stringent railroad safety regulations. Instead of following the data and waiting for National Transportation Safety Board recommendations, politicians want to show that they are doing something to make railroads safer.

High-profile railroad disasters always lead to new safety rules. What’s different about East Palestine is that it has prompted a raft of proposed regulations that seem to have nothing to do with the wreck.

The NTSB said the derailment was caused by a wheel bearing failure. In its preliminary report, the board also said the train crew did nothing wrong, there’s no evidence of track problems, and the hotbox detectors on the route were working as designed.

The Rail Safety Act, introduced by Ohio Sens. J.D. Vance and Sherrod Brown, would regulate wayside defect detectors for the first time, expand handling rules for trains carrying hazardous materials, and require railroads to provide first responders with more funding and real-time data on hazmat shipments. These are logical responses, although an argument could be made that installing wheel bearing sensors on freight cars is a far better solution than adding more hotbox detectors.

The bill also is a legislative grab bag…


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