Just hours before a train traveling through East Palestine buckled off the tracks in a twisted, roaring inferno, Norfolk Southern released its 2023 annual report, which included a prescient acknowledgement that carrying such dangerous loads had “inherent” risks. Such risks, Norfolk Southern explained, “could create catastrophic losses in terms of personal injury and property (including environmental) damage.”
The report notes Norfolk Southern “must offer to transport hazardous materials, regardless of risk,” because it is a “common carrier,” transporting goods for a fee. Five of the derailed cars on this train carried vinyl chloride, a highly volatile gas. Other cars contained toxic substances ethylhexyl acrylate, a flammable carcinogen, and isobutylene, which is toxic and potentially fatal at high levels of exposure.
On Thursday, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a preliminary finding that the freight train’s crew did not get a critical warning alarm about an overheated wheel bearing until just before the derailment. The crew stopped the train and its three locomotives but it was too late; the cars were grinding off the rails in flames.
While railroads are federally regulated, they wield considerable control and have lobbied successfully against increased safety regulation, to limit costs. Norfolk Southern, which has had several high-profile derailments, has amassed huge profits. In 2022 alone, the company made nearly $3.3 billion on a record $12.7 billion in revenues.
But Norfolk Southern is now incurring millions of dollars in expenses, from cleanup and remediation costs already ordered by the Environmental Protection Agency, plus substantial costs to cover residents’ expenses.
In 2005, two Norfolk Southern trains collided and partially derailed in Graniteville, South Carolina, killing nine people and exposing more than 250 others to toxic chlorine. The railroad company was hit with a $4 million civil penalty from the EPA for chlorine and diesel spills into a nearby creek, violating the federal Clean Water Act.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, in a terse Feb. 19 letter to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, wrote: “Major derailments in the past have been followed by calls for reform — and by vigorous resistance by your industry to increased safety measures. This must change.”
Buttigieg, who toured the disaster site on Thursday, called two days earlier for a series of reforms to improve rail safety, including a safety inspection program for trains carrying large volumes of hazardous materials, a faster process for approving safer tank cars for transporting hazardous materials, and higher maximum fines. Buttigieg also called for more funding for first responders’ training in hazardous materials, boosting train staffing requirements and better worker protections.
In a statement late Thursday, the company said it supports the NTSB investigation into the Ohio crash, citing the preliminary report that showed its crew had been operating below the speed limit. The railroad also said it would inspect sensors across its system that are designed to detect excess heat that could cause accidents.
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw has also vowed safety improvements.
“We’re going to help the residents of this community recover,” Shaw said in an interview with CNN, “and we’re going to invest in the long-term health of this community and we’re going to make Norfolk Southern a safer railroad.”
Since 2011, there have been more than 200 incidents in the U.S. — including 34 involving Norfolk Southern — where trains released hazardous materials, mostly due to derailments.
Nationally, hazardous materials releases from trains have caused evacuations 50 times in the past decade, with one event in 2019 forcing the evacuation of 2,000 people from Dupo, Illinois, after a collision.
“We need to look at the whole issue of rail freight safety in this country,” said Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. “We’re having too many derailments. ... Congress needs to look at this.”
Less than two weeks after the East Palestine disaster, another Norfolk Southern train derailed about 30 miles west of Detroit. There were no injuries and no release of hazardous materials.
Safety regulations relaxed
Trains carrying large volumes of certain hazardous materials are required by federal rules to select routes that pose the least risk, analyzing population density and other factors.
However, the Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine was not classified as a “high-hazard flammable train.”
“There is not anything that leads me to believe that Norfolk Southern was deficient in their decision-making to put this train on the route that it was taking,” said Mehdi Ahmadian, director of the Center for Vehicle Systems & Safety at Virginia Tech. “We have such trains that go through most of our major cities. ... Take your pick: Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago.”
The Sheet Metal, Air, Rail Transportation Union says reduced staffing in the rail workforce and the use of longer trains “have made it impossible for these railroad professionals to properly inspect equipment to ensure its safety.”
After slashing jobs in past years and early in the pandemic, Norfolk Southern ramped up hiring last year. This year, the company acknowledged that many of its locations are still below minimum staffing levels. It said it would work to shore up crew bases that are short.
The Association of American Railroads has lobbied over the years for looser safety restrictions, including a proposed federal rule that would require at least two crew members for most trains. The group argued the Federal Railroad Administration should “measure the massive costs the crew-size rule will impose.”
Under the Trump administration, the Federal Railroad Administration relaxed certain rail safety regulations with the idea of “removing outdated provisions” and “saving the industry money.” One, a rule issued in 2015 under the Obama administration to require railroads carrying high-hazard flammable materials such as crude oil to have electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, was rescinded in 2017 after the Association of American Railroads lobbied for the repeal.
“Profit and expediency must never outweigh the safety of the American people,” Buttigieg said in a written statement.