Railroads say they’re making safety changes to reduce derailments after fiery Ohio crash

The changes railroads announced after last year’s fiery crash in East Palestine, Ohio, haven’t yet made a major difference, statistics show, and reforms have stalled in Congress.

A few key measures in the latest Federal Railroad Administration statistics, including the total number of train accidents, worsened over the first 11 months of last year compared to the same period in previous years. Meanwhile there were some improvements with other numbers, like total derailments.

The overall picture is that rail safety hasn’t significantly improved in recent years — and as the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine last Feb. 3 and others demonstrate, just one derailment can be disastrous when hazardous chemicals are involved. The small town near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border is still struggling to recover a year later.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said there was a meaningful 15% decrease in derailments along mainline tracks after Congress responded to a number of high-profile train crashes involving crude oil in the early 2010s. “Progress has plateaued as derailments and preventable incidents are happening at an unacceptable rate,” Buttigieg said, urging Congress to pass the reforms now.

The railroad industry defends its record as the safest way to transport hazardous materials over land — something the head of the National Transportation Safety Board agreed with in recent testimony in the House — though officials acknowledge the railroads need to continue improving safety. And the Association of American Railroads trade group says most of the measures railroads promised to take last spring weren’t completed until late last year, so they aren’t yet reflected in the numbers.

What’s the industry’s safety record?

Safety statistics are mixed for the six biggest freight railroads that dominate the industry — Norfolk Southern, CSX, Union Pacific, CPKC, Canadian National and BNSF.

For the majority of 2023 the total number of train accidents increased slightly to 4,845, including more than 600 deaths.

When comparing 2022 and 2023, the total number of derailments declined about 2.6% — but there were still nearly three derailments a day nationwide. Railroads point out that roughly two-thirds of those crashes happen at slow speeds in railyards and don’t cause significant damage.

  • February 3, 2024
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