Photo: NTSB

Aerial view of the burned out wreckage following the NS freight train derailment at East Palestine, Ohio.

USA: Federal Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has called for ‘a three-pronged push’ by regulators, industry and Congress to improve the safety of rail freight operations, following the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous chemicals at East Palestine, Ohio.

The National Transportation Safety Board is undertaking an investigation to determine the probable cause of the derailment of general merchandise train 32N on February 3, which resulted in 38 wagons leaving the tracks, including 11 of the 20 hazardous material cars in the formation. Another 12 wagons were damaged in a subsequent fire, although there were no reported fatalities or injuries.

In an interim report published on February 14, NTSB said its investigators had identified and examined the vehicle that initiated the derailment, citing video which showed ‘what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure’. The wheelset and bearing had been recovered for metallurgical examination.


Photo: EPA

The Environmental Protection Agency has deployed staff to monitor the impact of the East Palestine derailment. On February 21, EPA issued a formal order instructing NS to undertake an environmental clean-up of the site, including the remediation of comtaminated soil and water courses. 

Regulatory initiatives

The US Department of Transportation confirmed on February 21 that it would continue its efforts to enhance the safety of rail freight, including advancing a Train Crew Staffing Rule, which would require a minimum of two crew members ‘for most railroad operations’.

Noting that the rail industry had been pushing for smaller crew sizes, the Federal Railroad Administration said ‘research indicates that an increase in physical tasks and cognitive demands for a one-person crew could potentially lead to task overload or a loss of situational awareness that could cause an accident’.

Other rules under consideration include measures to manage the operation of  ‘high-hazard flammable trains’ and mandate the introduction of electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, which were previously proposed in 2015. USDOT wants to work closely with Congress, seeking bipartisan support to expand and strengthen rules governing hazardous shipments and accelerate the introduction of safer tank wagons. It would also look to increase the level of fines imposed for safety violations.

Meanwhile, USDOT plans to initiate ‘a focused safety inspection programme’ for routes used by HHFTs and other services carrying large volumes of hazardous material. It will also launch an inspection programme for legacy tank wagons used by shippers and railroads ‘who have chosen not to upgrade’ their fleets to the safer DOT117 specifications.

Resources from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will be provided to fund a variety of safety improvement projects. This will be channelled through the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure & Safety Improvements and Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing programmes, as well as a new Railroad Crossing Elimination Program.

Encouraging change

In addition to these regulatory initiatives, USDOT said it was calling on ‘the entire freight railroad industry to act immediately’ to:

  • protect workers who spot safety issues, by joining FRA’s Confidential Close Call Reporting Program. At present Amtrak, commuter rail and short line companies are part of the programme, but none of the Class I railroads;
  • deploy new inspection technologies such as Automated Track Inspection without seeking permission to abandon human inspections;
  • work with vehicle owners to expedite the phase-in of DOT117 compliant tank cars in advance of a Congressionally-mandated deadline of 2029;
  • provide proactive advance notification to emergency response teams when they are transporting hazardous gas tank cars through their states;
  • provide paid sick leave to ensure a ‘healthy and well-supported workforce’, as is already being pursued by some operators.

Buttigieg called for an end to the rail industry’s ‘vigorous resistance’ to increased safety measures, which had included litigation and lobbying Congress. ‘Profit and expediency must never outweigh the safety of the American people’, he said. ‘We at USDOT are doing everything in our power to improve rail safety, and we insist that the rail industry do the same — while inviting Congress to work with us to raise the bar.’

Industry response

Responding to the USDOT announcement, Association of American Railroads President & CEO Ian Jefferies reiterated that ‘railroads are steadfastly committed to solutions-oriented steps that directly address the cause of the accident and could prevent a similar accident from occurring elsewhere’.

Noting that NTSB’s independent investigators were continuing ‘their work to identify the accident’s root cause and contributing factors’, Jefferies said ‘that investigation must continue unimpeded by politics and speculation, so NTSB’s findings can guide what additional measures may have prevented this accident.

All stakeholders — railroads along with federal, state and local officials — must work to restore the public’s trust in the safety and security of our communities. We can only do that by letting the facts drive the post-accident response.’

AAR pointed out that the USDOT rules on HHFTs applied to trains with 20 or more tank wagons in a continuous block or trains with a total of 35 wagons loaded with flammable liquids such as crude oil and ethanol. As vinyl chloride is a flammable gas, the rules ‘would not apply to the train involved in this incident’. However, it would be subject to federal regulations and railroad operating procedures designed to ensure that all hazardous material shipments ‘that rail companies are compelled by law to carry’ arrive at their destination without incident.

The association emphasised that ‘the much-discussed ECP rule would not have applied to the NS train that derailed in East Palestine, had it been in place’. It added that ‘several US railroads have engaged in extensive real-world tests of ECP brakes and found that the failure rate for of ECP systems is significant and the repair time is much too long to make them practical’. Failed ECP-equipped trains had caused ‘far-reaching disruption’, so the railroads had opted to use distributed power and end-of-train devices to apply brakes more rapidly on long trains.

Responding to comments about the increased length of trains operated under precision scheduled railroading principles, AAR said the ‘comparable length trains have been safely operating for decades, and the industry’s safety record has seen dramatic improvements over that same period.’ In 2022, the median train length for Class I railroads was about 1 615 m, and 95% of all trains were less than 3 350 m long, it reported.

Emphasising that ‘rail remains the safest way to move hazmat overland’, AAR said railroads had ‘a proven track record of safety’, with 99·9% of all hazmat shipments reaching their destination without impact. The hazmat accident rate had declined by 55% since 2012, and less than 1% of all train accidents over the last 10 years had resulted in a hazmat release, it added.