Did train length play a role in Ohio derailment?

(NewsNation) — As officials continue to investigate the cause of a train derailment near East Palestine, Ohio, that included 10 cars carrying hazardous materials, some industry experts fear such incidents could become more common.

Much of that concern is due to the fact that trains have become longer and heavier over the years, according to one former rail engineer.

“Long trains will cause all kinds of problems because of the logistics of running a train like that,” said Jeff Kurtz, an Iowa-based, retired BNSF engineer of more than 40 years.

Longer trains are harder to stop, there are more components that can malfunction and when things go wrong, the consequences can be devastating, Kurtz pointed out.

A January presentation by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) showed that in recent decades, the percentage of freight accidents on major tracks with 150 or more railcars has increased. Longer trains, though, have also become more common over that time period.

Investigators have not officially determined if length played a factor in the eastern Ohio crash, but the Norfolk Southern train that derailed was reportedly 150 cars long, according to the federal government.

Data shows freight trains have been getting longer over the years.

From 2008 to 2017, the average train length grew by 25%, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office. One of the railroads studied regularly ran trains as long as 3 miles, the report found.

Railroads haven’t been shy about the move toward longer, heavier trains, which have boosted productivity and efficiency.

In its 2021 annual report, Norfolk Southern touted the successful conclusion of its three-year plan to investors. During that time period the company said it had reached “record productivity levels” by “improving” average train weight 21% and average train length 20%.

On its website, Union Pacific says it has increased train length by 16% systemwide since 2018 and that additional increases remain a main area of focus.

The FRA does not currently place limits on freight train length.

In East Palestine, investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday that surveillance video appeared to show an overheating wheel bearing moments before the derailment. A preliminary report is expected in two weeks.

The Norfolk Southern train was heading from Illinois to Pennsylvania when about 50 cars derailed, some of which contained hazardous material.

The Association of American Railroads — an industry trade group representing the major freight carriers — says more than 99.9% of all hazmat moved by rail “reaches its destination without a release caused by a train accident.” The hazmat accident rate has fallen 55% since 2012, the group wrote in a fact sheet.

But for Kurtz, who still works with Railroad Workers United — a cross-union rail worker group — the rail carriers’ increased emphasis on efficiency has amplified safety risks.

He fears the next accident could be even worse.

“It’s only a matter of time unless they do something,” he said. “If you really want to be safe, cut the size of the trains down.”


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