Pitman: High-flying prosecutor says wheels are key to railway safety

Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser is a pensive man of many interests, one of which is aviation.

He had given a lot of thought to the horrific accident that happened in East Palestine, where dozens of railway cars containing hazardous materials derailed and contaminated the community’s water supply. And he believes the innovations and advancements in aviation could possibly prevent another derailment from occurring ― at least one due to the wheels.

The Railway Safety Act of 2023, which has bipartisan backing in the U.S. Senate, calls for a number of safety reforms for the rail industry, including defect detectors placed every 10 miles on the tracks. These defect detectors alert train companies when there are axle and signal problems in passing trains, and can include sensors to detect different kinds of problems that occur.

But what happens if a problem occurs between the defect detectors?

That’s Gmoser’s big concern, and why he said sensors and detectors should be on the machine itself. His plane is full of sensors, detectors, and other gadgets that tell him exactly what’s happening when he’s 9,000 to 12,000 in the air.

“In the age of where semiconductors are available in almost microscopic proportions, and the ability to transmit information regarding failures, it seems to me that if you had a sensor that was required to be attached to every wheel ― or at least on every car transporting hazardous materials,” he said.

It makes sense. Modern vehicles already have wheel sensors, telling drivers if the left rear tire needs a little air or if there’s a leak. Gmoser said his plane has a sensor that provides enough warning to land his plane because of an engine problem.

The East Palestine train derailed on Feb. 3 likely because of an overheated bearing on one of the rail cars. Nearly 40 cars derailed on that Norfolk Southern train, and about 20 contained hazardous materials. A month later, on March 4, a Springfield Twp. train derailed because “rail cars had loose wheels, which could cause a derailment.” Fortunately, no hazardous materials were in the 20 cars that derailed.

Many have called the Railway Safety Act of 2023 “a reasonable approach,” including Hamilton Mayor Pat Moeller. Gmoser said doing something is better than doing nothing, or improving on the current inefficiencies. But, he said, the problem is it’s going to take “failure after failure after failure until it reaches the point where they say to put it on every damn wheel.”

The railroad industry has made a lot of technological advancements in the 160-plus years since President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act in July 1862. Diesel replaced steam engines, trains are becoming more fuel efficient, and rail cars are becoming more aerodynamic with many single-purpose cars, from transporting vehicles, food, and hazardous materials.

Locomotives also have onboard computer software that calculates stopping distance and prompts engineers to slow down based on each train’s weight, length, speed, and track terrain.

Butler County is teeming with railroad tracks, and while they have been instrumental in the county’s growth over the decades, many trains now are just passing through. And it’s unknown which trains are transporting hazardous materials.

Hamilton Public Safety Executive Director Scott Scrimizzi recently told the Journal-News there’s no doubt hazardous materials are in the trains coming through Butler County’s capital city on a daily basis, but no one knows when, where, or how much. But he said the city’s HazMat team is ready if the next East Palestine happens in Hamilton, as well as the teams in West Chester Twp. and Middletown, and the Butler County’s Incident Management Team.

Hopefully, there’s not another hazardous or catastrophic derailment before whatever safety improvements are made.

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