In the small town of East Palestine, PA, on February 3, 2023, at 8:30 PM, a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed, sending 38 cars tumbling off the track. As luck would have it, no homes were damaged and no employees were injured.
By the following day, an urgent problem arose. Some of the cars were carrying volatile hazardous materials that were at risk of exploding. This was the second stage of the disaster and questionable choices were made.
Next time you’re sitting at a railroad crossing, ask yourself if you know what those cars are carrying.
More than 90 million tons of hazardous materials are transported on American railroads a year.
- When we evaluate probability, there are reasons to code trains as possible threats – in other words, the potential for unforeseen events is higher, simply due to the lack of current, verifiable data.
- Freight trains are not scheduled like passenger trains. It is almost impossible to find data on the number of freight trains or their travel frequency in a specific area.
- Information on train derailments, incidents at crossings, and fatalities (employees, passengers, and people outside the train) is not current. The government is the only organization tracking all trains for all locations. The latest data is from 2012.
- There is no way to know if/when a freight train carries hazardous materials. First, the cars themselves are not owned by the railroad. They are owned by shipping companies that provide space for cargo. Cars carrying hazardous cargo must be properly labeled for the safety of first responders – an accident is the first time public officials will know the content of the car.
- With so little data, there are limited controls surrounding freight train routes. The logistics remain unclear – making it challenging to set priorities for public safety. It’s not clear what the impact of a train colliding with a commercial propone tank of this size would be. There is no data.
Commercial propane location within 20 yards of a railroad track on Raeford Rd. in Fayetteville, NC.
Chaos Intensifies the Threat Environment
The train, run by Norfolk Southern, Inc. derailed in the dark. By the next morning, the site was swarming with government agencies and train company executives.
Chain of command was often unclear. But a car carrying vinyl chloride – a potent and deadly carcinogen – needed to be vented before a possible explosion occurred.
It’s unclear who made the call, but the outcome has left residents frightened and uncertain, with sick pets and dying plants.
We consider this another notch in the threat index. Prevention isn’t always possible, which means the value in a coordinated and rapid response.
Could it Happen in Your Town?
Short answer: If freight trains pass through, yes. Now let’s look at the probability.
- A Norfolk Southern train derailed in Lexington, NC on February 27, 2023 – roughly 1 month from the Ohio incident. Out of 132 cars, 1 car went off track. No information is available about what they carried but no spillage occurred.
- In Sandusky, Ohio in 2022, there was 122 car derailment and spilled 10,000 gallons of paraffin wax.
- In 2020, a Norfolk Southern conductor tried to pull out of a Rossville, Tennessee train yard while one car was still connected to an unloading tower. The accident released about 500 gallons of a toxic chemical.
- In 2018, the company derailed 16 cars in Loudonville, Ohio. More than 30,000 gallons of liquified petroleum gas were spilled.
Note that Norfolk Southern had numerous incidents in Ohio. None of the events did enough to change the company’s approach.
The big picture: The rate of accidents on the company’s railway increased in each of the last four years, according to an earnings call presentation by Norfolk Southern on Jan. 23.”
They did know safety was a problem; They just didn’t want to spend any earnings to fix it. A 10-year safety summary found the company has had163.6 derailments and 2.9 hazardous material releases per year on average.
Answers We’d Be Tracking
The leadership team at Norfolk Southern is significantly lacking in leadership. Gambling on risk that causes human harm is not good for business. It is eventually exposed, no matter how long it takes
These are the questions we’d ask:
- What is the maintenance schedule for freight cars? Is it being met?
- Are employees regularly trained?
- Has there been a hiring freeze in the past 5 years?
- As a publicly held company, have dividends risen in the past 5 years?
- Where are mechanical parts manufactured and shipped from?
- How long has the current leadership team been in place?
- What is the response to health concerns from vented gases?
When we say that risky decisions are exposed, Norfolk Southern is the ultimate example. The U.S. Senate called CEO Alan H. Shaw to testify. While he was on the hot seat, he got word that a Norfolk Southern train had derailed in Alabama.
Mr. Shaw, who was hired in May of 2022, is having a hell of a first year.