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A common, yet incredibly simple thread exists when big companies cause large-scale disasters: a lack of basic safety. The Norfolk-Southern train derailments are just the latest example in a long line of preventable disasters.
On February 3, 2023, a 150-car train owned and operated by Norfolk Southern derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The cause was an overheated wheel bearing on the 23rd rail car, which went unnoticed until it reached a critical level. As an alarm finally sounded, the train’s engineer attempted to decelerate the train, but in doing so, the wheel bearing failed, and 38 cars derailed. The derailment caused a fire to the train’s cargo, which included numerous toxic chemicals that were being transported from Madison, IL, to Conway, PA. Within hours of the fire, authorities worried an explosion would occur, leading Norfolk Southern to conduct a controlled “release and burn” of the chemicals. This strategy consisted of releasing roughly 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride – a chemical that gets increasingly volatile as temperatures increase – from five tanker cars into a pre-dug trench, and then setting the chemical on fire. What resulted was a Hiroshima-like cloud that was visible from space.
According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, within five days of the derailment, chemicals that spilled into the Ohio River killed roughly 3,500 fish. Within that same timeframe, hundreds, if not thousands, of the roughly 5,000 residents of East Palestine reported difficulty breathing, headaches and rashes. This fails to mention the obvious long-term health effects the residents and surrounding city-and-townspeople will likely experience, specifically related to the spilled chemicals seeping into the ground water the residents rely on. It also fails to mention the property damage to the homes and surrounding businesses, many of which have been forced to cease operations.
“This was 100% preventable,” said Jennifer Homendy, the Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), shortly after the derailment. “We call things accidents; there is no accident. Every single event we investigate is preventable,” she said.
Norfolk Southern is a publicly traded company with 2022 revenues of more than $12.5 billion. On an earnings call just two weeks before the derailment, Norfolk Southern’s CEO Alan Shaw told shareholders that the company’s accidents had risen over the past four years; yet, in the same call he presented data on the increased speed of its trains. But what might be more telling is that while its operating expenses had increased nearly 20 percent year-over-year, Norfolk Southern nonetheless set a Q4 company record for operating income.
While the investigation into the derailment is ongoing, the NTSB has already concluded the mechanism that caused the crash was the failed wheel bearing. But what the NTSB and others have not yet said is why Norfolk Southern is operating such large trains that are hauling such increased weight without more frequent safety devices along its routes. As more evidence comes to light, it is increasingly clear that while Norfolk Southern is putting increased pressure on the demands of its trains (literally—the heavier the cargo, the greater the weight downward onto the train’s wheel bearings), it is doing so at the expense of the neighborhoods that it travels through.
Less than two weeks after the East Palestine derailment, on February 16, 2023, a Norfolk Southern train derailed just outside of Detroit, MI, and less than a month after the East Palestine derailment, a Norfolk Southern train derailed in Springfield, OH, just outside of Dayton. While no human casualties occurred, early reports from both of those derailments show an issue with how the trains are “stacked.” Not only is Norfolk Southern running trains nearly two miles long, but the cargo it transports is arranged for convenience of loading and unloading, rather than safety. Specifically, the first stop’s cargo is arranged in the first set of train cars, the second stop is arranged in the second set of train cars, and so on. Often there is no cargo whatsoever in the middle cars because it is sometimes more difficult to unload from those cars based on the terminals they unload at. This means the weight of the cargo is not distributed evenly, which not only affects how the train is able to maneuver at various speeds, but because Norfolk Southern’s trains pull from the front, also puts incredible strain on the train in general.
As is common with all companies that put profit over safety, Norfolk Southern has been aware of these safety issues for years. While government regulation of trains is rightly under increased scrutiny, even before the recent spate of derailments occurred, Norfolk Southern acknowledged the ability to place more warning sensors on its tracks and to space them out more frequently. This, in turn, would notify its engineers of safety problems well before it was too late. In the same breath, however, Norfolk Southern touted its “efficiency” of being able to stack more cargo on bigger, longer trains.
As the lengthening of Norfolk Southern’s trains is just one of the many causes of the East Palestine derailment, one resident at a late-February town hall sadly and ironically asked the CEO of Norfolk Southern whether the train company’s actions “shortened” her life. These are questions that will need to be answered by Norfolk Southern throughout the next decade, and unfortunately, well beyond.
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