Dozens of Freight Trains, Including At Least 15 Carrying Hazardous Materials, Have Derailed Since East Palestine

Six months after East Palestine, it's back to business for America's freight railroads.
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On March 4, a Union Pacific train in Ogden, Utah released magnesium chloride. On March 8, a CSX train spilled diesel fuel into a West Virginia river.  On March 30, a BNSF train crashed and burst into flames, igniting ethanol and forcing midnight evacuations in Minnesota. On June 26, molten asphalt spilled into the Yellowstone River in Montana after a bridge collapsed. And in a four-day span in July, freight trains in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Montana, and Wisconsin, all with hazardous materials on board, derailed.


These were just a few of the 59 freight train derailments in the six months following the East Palestine disaster that were significant enough to be reported in local or national news, according to data compiled by Motherboard. Fifteen of those derailments involved cars with hazardous materials. By contrast, there were 33 freight train derailments reported in local and national media in the six months prior to East Palestine, which thrust freight rail safety issues into the national spotlight. (Part of this difference is probably attributable to the attention the East Palestine disaster got, making outlets more likely to cover derailments.)  Motherboard did not include passenger rail derailments or derailments caused by extreme weather or vehicles on the tracks in the data.

Derailments reported in the media are a fraction of the total number of derailments reported to the Federal Railroad Administration, or FRA. After removing Amtrak derailments because regulations around passenger rail travel differ from those governing freight rail, derailments on low-speed track sidings or in rail yards, and ones caused by hitting vehicles on the tracks, freight railroads have reported 106 derailments in the six months after East Palestine to the regulatory agency.


But whether a derailment was reported in the media can serve as an important indicator of the danger such derailments potentially pose to the public. Derailments at or near population centers or adjacent to highways or highly-trafficked roads tend to get reported even if they’re less severe. Likewise, derailments that cause freight trains to block railroad crossings for extended periods usually get reported. These  cause significant issues for towns and cities across the country, preventing children from getting to school and, in extreme cases, ambulances from getting to sick people or firefighters from putting out fires. Derailments involving hazardous materials are also likely to be reported, particularly if they require evacuations.

In the immediate aftermath of East Palestine, a host of safety reforms were floated or proposed. Few of them have actually been implemented. The FRA, which is an agency within  department of the U.S. Department of Transportation, has proposed a number of new or refined regulations under the federal rulemaking process, which typically takes two years or more to finalize. One of the major initiatives was to build out the Close Call Reporting System (otherwise known as C3RS), modeled after the airline industry’s, to allow workers to anonymously report potential or actual safety risks on the railroad without fear of reprisals or punishments. Freight rail workers already have an extensive, supposedly anonymous whistleblower reporting system that rarely results in an adverse finding for the railroads, while workers are scared to use it because, in practice, it is rarely anonymous and workers are regularly fired for using it.


In early March, a month after East Palestine, Norfolk Southern and the other large freight railroad companies said they were finally, after years of refusal, agreeing to join C3RS. But six months later, the largest freight railroads in the country still haven’t formally agreed to participate in the program.

Railroads, through their industry association, the Association of American Railroads, say freight rail has never been safer. They have issued countless statements affirming the industry’s commitment to safety and trotted out statistics that purportedly show progress. For example, the main line accident rate is down 48 percent since 2000. 

But, as transportation researcher Uday Schultz has demonstrated using the same data as AAR, these data don’t take into account that railroads are running fewer but longer trains. Simply by nature of there being fewer trains, one expects the total number of accidents to go down. But when looking at accidents per mile traveled, the data clearly show that accidents have been increasing since about 2016—particularly ones attributable to “human factor” issues. 


Railroad companies and their lobbying groups claim this is evidence more work needs to be automated to be made safer, despite weak evidence automation actually makes railroads safer. Meanwhile, railroad workers and labor groups peg the increasing accident rate to the implementation of precision scheduled railroading, a management philosophy that has slashed the industry workforce to increase corporate profits, while also providing worse service and pissing off shippers along the way. 

This conflict of philosophies can be easily seen in a recently-published federal investigation into an Amtrak derailment that occurred on BNSF tracks in 2021, killing three people and injuring dozens more. The investigation found the derailment was due to track defects not detected by visual or automated inspections that occurred just days before the derailment. To some, this might look like human error. 

But why didn’t the track inspector see the defects? Because he was exhausted. He had been doing four people’s jobs for months leading up to the derailment, working 100-hour, seven-day work weeks. In the three days before he inspected the damaged track, he worked 16 hours, 12 hours 45 minutes, and 13 hours 30 minutes, respectively, putting in a 40-hour week in three days. And the automated systems missed it, too.

Friends of the railroad industry in various trade publications have spent recent months attempting to rehabilitate the industry’s reputation and bill some of the post-East Palestine reporting as sensationalist and irresponsible. As someone who was reporting on freight rail safety issues for more than two years before the East Palestine derailment, there’s no question that, like any other national news story that temporarily takes over the news cycle, the competition among reporters to push the story forward resulted in some misleading stories. But there’s also no question that, in the months afterwards, trains continue to derail and release hazardous chemicals into our air, water, and soil. 

But the industry publications are right about one thing. The national attention span is short. It has moved on. And it appears railroads can get back to their business.