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Responders, Railroads Must Collaborate to Prevent Disasters

The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, demonstrates that in spite of some efforts to mitigate derailments of hazardous materials, it hasn’t been enough to halt preventable accidents.

Smoke rises from a derailed cargo train in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 4, 2023. (Dustin Franz/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
Dustin Franz/AFP/TNS
Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, who continue to complain about feeling sick after last month's train derailment can’t be comforted by the recent preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that the accident was completely preventable.

It’s another in a line of rail accidents throughout the past several decades that has politicians crowing and placing blame while emergency responders and citizens are left in a cloud of spilled hazardous materials.

The accident occurred when one of 38 cars on the Norfolk Southern freight train carrying plastic pellets began to get heated by a hot axle that sparked a fire. The train passed by two defective detectors that should have triggered an audible alarm message but didn’t. A third detector did pick up the heat, but it was too late.

The derailment triggered the ire of those who warn that training, oversight, communication and the adoption of technologies that could mitigate some of the accidents that have occurred are lacking or too slow to be implemented.

NTSB said it will next investigate the train’s wheelset and bearing and focus on designs of tank cars and railcars, as well as maintenance procedures and practices.

The issues of maintenance, training of personnel, oversight of tracks in certain locations and communication, between the railroads and localities, have been issues for decades.

“There are still track failures or failures on the track and those are still significant causes of rail accidents,” said Bob Chipkevich, a former director of railroad, pipeline and hazardous materials investigations for NTSB.

An obviously angry Jim Hall, former member of NTSB, wrote in an email: “This accident is like 9/11 and once again the first responders are placed at risk. Our public officials have been expressing regret to the closest camera. Now they need to do their jobs.”

Though there were detectors in place to mitigate the heat problem, maintenance issues — and thus oversight — may have conspired against those that were working properly. Oversight of both track and train have been issues that continue to plague the rail industry and put first responders and citizens at risk.

Chipkevich said training has always been a key issue and is even more critical now as a generation of rail workers retires and is replaced by new, inexperienced employees.

“Training, training, training,” he said. “We have new personnel entering the workforce every year and we have a generation that’s retiring that has been exposed to accidents and have learned lessons. We have to have proper training and teaching about what has occurred in the past.”

First responders should also take it upon themselves to know what’s coming through their communities and be ready to respond. They should be familiar with the website Chemtrec, where they can learn what’s being transported and what to do in the event of an accident.

“It’s both emergency responders and the railroads,” Chipkevich said. “The railroads should reach out to the emergency responders and communities they go through and ask what type of information they need. It’s a two-way street.”

Technology is another issue that’s been lagging. There is a tool available called Positive Train Control that can be installed on the lines and detects when a train is going too fast or if there is a work zone ahead and slows the train in response. For years, Positive Train Control was supposed to be deployed — but deadline after deadline has been pushed back.

“They are finally making progress on it,” Chipkevich said. “It was required to be installed on lines that have passenger train service and that have certain high levels of hazardous materials over those lines.”