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. The toxic water that was used to extinguish the flames had to be transported to Texas for disposal deep underground. If dioxins are created, they can trickle down into the ground and contaminate the water supply to a community that relies 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. It takes layers of intervention to prevent the most serious accidents, but the layers in the U.S. have steadily been removed. The same factors that caused the disaster in East Palestine a decade earlier led to another deadly accident.
In 2013, an oil train run by an American railway derailed in Lac-Megantic, 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. 27 children and their parents were abandoned. The trouble started in July, one night. 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-Megantic 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-Megantic, a town of about 6,000 people several miles away. The train reached 65 miles an hour before going off the rails near Lac-Megantic’s downtown.
The official Lac-Megantic report states that the train was unable to reach 72 miles an hour before it veered off the rails near Lac-Megantic’s downtown. This is true strictly. 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 failed to properly test and set the brakes of his train. This is a time-consuming task and Harding was warned by Campbell that he shouldn’t have so many brakes.
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. Because railways successfully lobby for rule changes that allow trains to only be managed by one person, Harding was unable to see his fellow crew members.
Should the train have been left in a flat spot, and had the brakes been set properly, or had there been more than one person to inspect it, the chances of such an unfortunate accident would be much lower. None of this was necessary. Starting in the late 1970s and ’80s, the U.S. and Canada massively deregulated the railroad industry. Campbell stated that they reduced oversight budgets, and outsourced “a lot of safety work” and other obligations to companies. “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 on behalf of 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-Megantic temporarily shocked both governments into action. Canada overturned a regulation that allowed one-person crews to ride high-hazard trains. The Obama administration in the United States passed an order requiring that certain trains use electronic brake 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.
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-Megantic. 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. The train was caught on camera by Farcas’ Ring doorbell.
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.) A small number of accidents involved cars transporting hazardous material being damaged. However, East Palestine and Lac-Megantic proved that when things go wrong they can be wrong.
One of the most striking things about both derailments is how small Lac-Megantic and East Palestine are: Each community has less than 10,000 people. Each train that led to the crisis was more densely populated than the one it derail. In the case East Palestine’s case, they passed through Cleveland. One wonders what would have happened if trains were to derailed in larger areas, and what the U.S. will do to avoid future disasters.
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