El Dorado News-Times

Rail safety in question following Ohio derailment


The derailment of a Norfolk Southern train at East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3 has some people wondering if railroads’ cutbacks in personnel and push toward efficiency has come at the expense of safety of rail workers and communitie­s along their tracks.

According to the Associated Press, about half of the 4,800 residents in East Palestine and those in the surroundin­g area, including parts of Pennsylvan­ia, had to evacuate following a controlled burn of chemicals released from damaged tank cars. The evacuation order was lifted Wednesday after the air was deemed safe.

Rail transport is among the safest options for shippers of hazardous materials. Derailment­s and similar accidents have decreased in number in recent years, but such incidents can be deadly to nearby communitie­s. A derailment in Canada in 2013 killed 47 people in the town of Lac Megantic. A 2005 derailment in Granitevil­le, South Carolina, killed nine people and injured more than 250 after toxic chlorine gases were released.

Closer to home, the derailment of a CSX train at Mount Carbon, West Virginia, in 2015 resulted in an oil spill and resulted in a fire. Even closer, in November 1998 residents of the Westmorela­nd neighborho­od of Huntington had to shelter in place when six CSX cars derailed and hydrochlor­ic acid leaked from one.

Two local incidents in a span of 25 years show railroads have a good safety record. Practicall­y no one wants to see more trucks carrying hazardous materials on interstate highways or city streets. That, however, does not alleviate questions about whether the East Palestine derailment is an outlier or a warning of things to come.

According to the Associated Press, Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transporta­tion Trades Department coalition, said he worries the chances of a catastroph­ic derailment are increasing because major freight railroads have eliminated roughly onethird of their workers over the past six years. Companies have shifted to running fewer, longer trains and say they don’t need as many crews, mechanics and locomotive­s.

Before those operating changes, Regan said, inspectors had about two minutes to inspect every railcar. Now they only get roughly 30 to 45 seconds to check each car.

“They’re really just trying to squeeze as much productivi­ty out of these workers as they can,” Regan said. “And when you’re focused on timing and rushing, unfortunat­ely sometimes things can fall through the cracks.”

It will be several weeks before the cause of the East Palestine derailment is known.

There will be increased scrutiny of rail safety for a while, but it must not fade into the background, as these things tend to do.

— The Herald-Dispatch, Feb. 14

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