The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Ohio train wreck shows toxic risk of valuing efficiency over safety

A large plume of smoke rises over East Palestine, Ohio, after a controlled detonation on Feb. 6 of Norfolk Southern train cars that had derailed three days earlier. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
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Assembling superlong freight trains and employing fewer workers to staff them works out well for the nation’s big railroad companies. For the desperate residents of East Palestine, Ohio, not so much.

It has been two weeks since 38 cars of a Norfolk Southern train derailed catastrophically in East Palestine, a town of about 5,000 near the Pennsylvania border. Eleven of those overturned cars carried toxic chemicals that were immediately released into the town’s air, water and soil — or later deliberately set ablaze in a “controlled” burn that sent a vast mushroom cloud of acrid black smoke into the winter sky.

Norfolk Southern, the company involved in the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment, was absent from the Feb. 15 town hall meeting on the toxic derailment. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Rebecca Kiger For The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

Since the Feb. 3 derailment, anguished local officials and residents have been seeking answers. Among the chemicals released was vinyl chloride, which can be lethal in large doses and carcinogenic in small ones. Thousands of dead fish have turned up in local streams, and the whole town smells like a swimming pool. State and federal officials claim that the air is now safe to breathe and the municipal water safe to drink. That’s a different source than the private wells some residents rely on, which is just one of the reasons we can forgive residents for being skeptical. Some complain of persistent headaches. Others refuse to go back to their homes and are depleting their savings on motel rooms and restaurant meals.

What caused the disaster? The National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday that surveillance video shows “what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment.”

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That is one wheel bearing on one single car of a 151-car train, measuring in total length about 9,300 feet — a mile and three-quarters — and weighing 18,000 tons, or 36 million pounds.

I grew up across from some railroad tracks and, as a kid, I would sometimes count the cars in the freight trains that rumbled by. I never got anywhere close to 100. Admittedly, that was a long time ago; like virtually all methods of transportation, technology has made freight rail safer and more efficient. But 151 cars?

Alexandra Petri: Why are you so mad about the free chemicals?

Consolidation has left the nation with only seven major freight railroad companies, and six of them — including Norfolk Southern — have adopted a profit-boosting strategy called “precision-scheduled railroading,” or PSR. According to a Government Accountability Office report issued in December, PSR involves reductions in staff, longer trains and reductions in some key assets such as locomotives.

According to the report, “the overall number of staff among the seven largest freight railroads … decreased by about 28 percent from 2011 through 2021” and “all seven railroads said they have increased the length of trains in recent years.”

PSR was at the heart of the labor dispute that threatened a potentially crippling strike by rail workers last year. The employees were seeking what in other fields is a noncontroversial demand: a modest amount of paid sick leave. But the railroad companies resisted fiercely, because unplanned absences due to illness disrupt the PSR imperative of having the minimum number of workers in place to get any given job done.

So now we have longer and heavier freight trains, with fewer people on the job making sure they operate safely. What could go wrong?

Cartoon by Michael de Adder: At a crossroads

CBS News quoted unidentified Norfolk Southern employees as saying the train that crashed in East Palestine had already experienced at least one breakdown since beginning its journey in Illinois on Feb. 1. Identifying and fixing problems mid-route, which is not uncommon, requires walking the length of the train — in this case, the better part of two miles.

I have no idea whether it might have been possible to spot the problematic bearing before it failed. But rail workers say that PSR has resulted in fewer timely inspections of key equipment; they also say that scheduling demands cause fatigue that can lead to critical errors. The GAO report said that “available data are inconclusive” as to whether PSR-inspired operational changes have affected safety. Let me suggest that East Palestine offers an additional data point worthy of analysis.

Basic principles of physics would indicate that the sheer mass of such a long, heavy train would make any derailment more violent than that of a shorter, lighter train. A Norfolk Southern spokesperson, speaking to CBS, defended the “uniform” weight distribution of the train and the fact that it included a mid-train locomotive, “which helps manage the dynamic forces.” No amount of word salad can repeal Isaac Newton’s second law of motion, F=ma. Force equals mass times acceleration.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan visited East Palestine on Thursday. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg should go there, too, and see firsthand what happened. In overseeing freight rail, our government has erred on the side of efficiency versus safety. That balance must be corrected.