Is the US rail system on the wrong track


Just like the village of East Palestine, Ohio, after last month’s train derailment and environmental contamination, South Florida residents faced their own train scare last week.

On Tuesday afternoon, just outside Sarasota, five cars of a Southern Gulf Railroad freight train — two of which were carrying 30,000 gallons of propane — derailed in Gulf Coast Manatee County, near an industrial park and the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport. got off

Fortunately, when first responders arrived on scene, they were relieved to find no leak.

“The potential for a 30,000-gallon explosion of liquid propane is significant,” South Manatee Fire Rescue Chief Robert Bounds told the Post.

With no injuries or chemicals to remove, it was a remarkably positive outcome to a potentially devastating scare. But coming on the heels of the disaster in East Palestine – with Another freight derailment happened last weekend in North Carolina – The Florida accident is just the latest evidence to upgrade the US rail system.

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has come under fire from both Republicans and residents of East Palestine, Ohio.

According to A Preliminary report From the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the February 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine appears to have been caused by an overheated wheel bearing.

About a dozen cars carrying hazardous materials derailed, sparking a fire that spread to additional coaches.

Despite repeated tests and assurances from EPA officials and Governor Mike DeWine (R-Ohio). That their drinking water is safeMany local residents have complained of symptoms reminiscent of chemical exposure.

And the resulting finger-pointing, at once biased and contradictory, suggests the potential for disruption in an industry that remains largely privately owned, operating under public oversight.

Alan Shaw
Alan Shaw, CEO of Norfolk Southern — whose train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio — is set to testify on Capitol Hill on March 9.

Republicans, including Senate Commerce Committee ranking member Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), for example, have criticized the slowness of the Biden administration’s response. Blaming Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg He described it as “irrelevant” to “ignore” the crisis and respond only with “a grab bag of policy proposals”.

The Biden administration The authorities have pointed out in the meantime Past lawsuits and lobbying from railroad industry leaders to fight safety measures, particularly regulation surrounding electronically controlled pneumatic braking systems for trains carrying highly flammable materials.

While both sides may have merit, the finger-pointing has only added to the confusion. “There are a lot of political situations,” Alan Zrembsky, director of the University of Delaware’s railway engineering and safety program told the Post.

While Zarembski notes that train derailments are fairly common, those of the scope seen in Ohio are, as he puts it, “very unusual.” Indeed, between 1990 and 2021, more than 54,000 trains derailed nationwide, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics data reviewed by The Post — up from between 1,000 and 1,400 each year since 2012.

Most of these rail yards are similar to “fender benders,” Zarembski said, with injuries only slightly derailing. But concerns about security have, indeed, been raised — and not just from the White House or the Senate.

So while another derailment on the scale of East Palestine is unlikely in the near term, the demands of long-term industry scrutiny can no longer be ignored.

Tuesday's freight train derailment near Sarasota, Fl was the third of its kind in recent months and further underscored growing concern about the integrity of the nation's rail system.
Sarasota, Fla. Tuesday’s freight train derailed near , at least the third of its kind in recent months.
Mike Lang/USA Today Network

In the April 2022 memoMartin Oberman, chairman of the Surface Transportation Board, a federal regulator, expressed concern about major rail companies such as Norfolk Southern, CSX, and others cutting their workforces to the “bare bones” to satisfy shareholders — staffing levels only down 29% from six years ago.

Major freight rail unions Similarly raised concerns The latest fallout over safety and working conditions amid a contract dispute and near-strike. To some industry insiders, both groups were simply stating the obvious.

“The real reality is that railroads are not as safe as they could be or should be,” Jim Matthews, CEO of the Rail Passenger Association and a member of several congressional committees dealing with rail and passenger safety and hazardous materials, told the Post. .

Cleanup continues at the site of the Norfolk Southern freight train derailment in East Palenstein, Ohio.
Cleanup continues at the site of the Norfolk Southern freight train derailment in East Palenstein, Ohio.

“It’s super-long trains, very thin crews … maximum profit, maximum margin,” he said. “And it’s just the kind of environment where, no, you’re not necessarily breaking the rules, but … you’re just taking every opportunity to cut corners and do optional things that aren’t a good idea. is.”

Obviously, more money can help, and there is a lot on the table. 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Act About $70 billion has been kept For rail reforms, some of which Will likely lead to security upgrades.

But with the majority of the nation’s rail system actually owned by private companies like Norfolk Southern, Matthews questions whether taxpayers should be on the hook for the lion’s share of major reforms.

Indeed, purifying this public-private pas de deux Can be at the heart of any ultimate industry improvement.

East Palestine derailed
In the wake of the East Palestine derailment and fire (above), major US freight carriers recently agreed to join a vital near-call incident reporting system.

Despite a trio of recent accidents, rail carriers continue to insist that their systems are safe. According to the American Association of Railroads (AAR), the major lobbying arm of the freight rail industry, Some 99.9% hazmat shipments Arrive without any problems.

Yet that’s little comfort to the people of eastern Palestine, whose health concerns are sure to take center stage on Capitol Hill when Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw testifies before a Senate committee on March 9.

Meanwhile, signs of needed oversight reforms have already emerged, such as a new bipartisan Rail Safety Bill Presented on Thursday.

In addition, major freight railroads – including Norfolk Southern – will now participate in the A Closed-call reporting system which they had previously refused to join.

Thanks to the 2021 infrastructure bill, more federal funds are available to help strengthen U.S. railways — even though most of the U.S.  The tracks are actually privately owned.
Thanks to the 2021 infrastructure bill, more federal funds are available to help strengthen U.S. railways — even though most of the U.S. The tracks are actually privately owned.
MediaNews Group via Getty Images

Still, in the wake of a derailment that he believes “scared the hell out of us,” Manatee County, Fla., commission chairman Kevin Van Ostenbridge suggested the biggest obstacle to improving railroad safety is simply politics. Not a matter of – but political head-burying. “I think for many leaders, these trains are out of sight, out of mind,” Van Ostenbridge told the Post.

With East Palestine certain to dominate the headlines for months to come, politicians and rail industry officials will now have little choice but to confront rail security.

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