How Decades of Lax Rules Enable Train Disasters
Not much is stopping a catastrophe like the one in East Palestine from happening again.
Updated at 4:30 p.m. ET on March 23, 2023.
It’s been more than a month since a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. More than 100,000 gallons of vinyl chloride, a carcinogen, were released, with some spilling into waterways. Many hundreds of people had to evacuate from their homes. An estimated 43,000 aquatic animals died. When emergency responders burned the cars containing vinyl chloride in an attempt to avoid an explosion, the fire likely created long-lasting toxic chemicals called dioxins. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of now-toxic water used to put out the fire had to be shipped to Texas to be disposed of deep underground. And if dioxins were created, they could trickle into the ground over time, contaminating the water in a community where people rely heavily on wells. Last week, Ohio sued Norfolk Southern for what the state’s attorney general called “glaring negligence.”
In East Palestine, small failures cascaded into catastrophe because of railway deregulation that began four decades ago. Preventing the worst accidents requires layers of intervention, but in the U.S., those layers have been steadily peeled back. Indeed, the same risk factors that led to the mess in East Palestine also led to a deadly derailment nearly a decade ago, and could easily lead to another tragedy.
In 2013, an oil train run by an American railway derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, releasing 1.5 million gallons of crude oil, some of which ignited almost immediately. The ensuing fires and explosions destroyed dozens of buildings and vehicles. They also killed 47 people, some of whom were found with their shirts melted into their flesh. Twenty-seven children were left without parents.
The trouble began one night in early July. Tom Harding, a locomotive engineer for Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, eased his train onto a stretch of track in the nearby town of Nantes, Quebec, about 20 miles from the border with Maine. The train, loaded with more than 7 million gallons of crude oil, had already made its way about 1,700 miles from New Town, North Dakota. As Bruce Campbell wrote in his book about the derailment, The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Denied, Harding had just picked up the load earlier that morning, after being called in with three hours’ notice on what was supposed to be his day off.
Upon arriving in Nantes, just before 11 p.m., Harding set the brakes on a slanted stretch of track (as he had done several times before), left the locomotive running (as was protocol), and took a cab to his hotel. Not long after, someone noticed smoke billowing from the engine and called 911. Firefighters cut off the engine’s fuel source to douse the flames, which turned off the engine, which then, for reasons related to both company directives and technical subtleties best left to rail engineers, caused the brakes to slowly fail. This all might have been fine had the train been resting on flat ground, but it wasn’t. Around 1 a.m., all 72 cars began rolling toward Lac-Mégantic, a town of about 6,000 people several miles away. The train reached 65 miles an hour before going off the rails near Lac-Mégantic’s downtown.
The official report for the Lac-Mégantic derailment states that no single factor led to the derailment, and strictly speaking, this is true. But it is easy to follow how each failure—the single crew member, the angled parking job, the braking that a report would later determine was insufficient—was propelled by railroad companies’ demand for speed, efficiency, and profit.
Campbell told me that the locomotive that caught fire had been repaired before—poorly. He also said that Harding had parked the train on a hill because, at nearly a mile long, it would have blocked other tracks if it had stopped anywhere else. (Railroad companies have pushed for longer trains—up to three miles long—to cut fuel and staff costs, but those trains are harder to stop and have more cargo to spill.) Harding didn’t properly set and test the train’s brakes; doing so is time-consuming, and Harding had “been warned by this company, ‘Don’t set so many hand brakes,’” Campbell said.
After the fire, Harding wanted to make sure the train was stable, but rail traffic control told him he couldn’t: It would have extended his working hours, barring him from driving a different train in the morning. And because railways had successfully lobbied for a rule change allowing trains to be run by only one person, Harding had no fellow crew members who could go look.
Had the train been parked in a flat area, had the brakes been properly set, or had more than one person been available to check on it, such a large disaster would have been far less likely. But none of that happened, because none of it was required. Starting in the late 1970s and ’80s, the U.S. and Canada massively deregulated the railroad industry. They shrank oversight budgets and “outsourced a lot of safety work and obligations to the companies,” Campbell said. “Transport regulators became just an auditor. It was kind of a paper exercise—there were fewer people out in the field” making sure railroads were following the rules.
According to a 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Transportation, even when the agency found evidence of wrongdoing by the railways, criminal penalties were not often pursued, and regulatory penalties had “little deterrent effect.” Meanwhile, the cargo was becoming riskier: The shale boom of the mid-aughts led to more oil being transported by rail. At its peak in 2014, rail moved roughly 10 percent of domestic oil.
Lac-Mégantic temporarily shocked both governments into action. In Canada, a rule allowing for one-person crews on high-hazard trains was overturned. In the U.S., the Obama administration passed a rule requiring certain trains to use electronic braking systems. (They make catastrophic derailments less likely than the more commonly used air brakes, which were first developed in the 1800s.) But railway operators complained that the new brakes were too expensive, and the Trump administration overturned the rule. Even if the rule had been in force, it would not have made a difference in the East Palestine derailment: It only applied to high-hazard trains, and the quantity of vinyl chloride on the train was is not considered high-hazard by the agency tasked with oversight.
Unlike its northern neighbor, the United States has no formal rules on how many crew members should be on board a train, even after Lac-Mégantic. The Federal Railroad Administration has proposed requiring a minimum of two-person crews, but that hasn’t yet passed. Railways have long argued that such rules are unnecessary because a new technology called a positive train control system means that most trains need only one crew member. But the National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary report on the East Palestine derailment said that even though the system was “enabled and operating at the time of the derailment,” the train’s two workers did not get much warning before the train derailed.
Nor did they appear to notice that at least one car was on fire for miles before the derailment, according to Tudor Farcas, an associate with a law firm that has filed suit on behalf of some East Palestine–area residents. One of his firm’s clients lives about 20 miles from East Palestine, “but the train passes in front of her front door,” Farcas told me. Her Ring doorbell captured footage of the train on fire.
Dangerous train derailments like this one are known as low-frequency, high-impact events. From 2010 to 2022, roughly 1,200 to 1,700 trains derailed in the U.S. each year, according to data from the Department of Transportation. (A few weeks after East Palestine, another Norfolk Southern train went off the rails in Ohio.) Only a small subset of these accidents resulted in cars carrying hazardous materials being damaged—but, as East Palestine and Lac-Mégantic have shown, when things go wrong, they can go really wrong.
One of the most striking things about both derailments is how small Lac-Mégantic and East Palestine are: Each community has less than 10,000 people. The trains that caused each crisis had traversed more populated areas before they derailed; in the case of East Palestine, the train passed through Cleveland. It makes one wonder what horrors might have occurred if the trains had derailed in those larger communities instead—and what the U.S. is willing to do to prevent future catastrophes.
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