Toledo Blade: Focus on railroad safety

Safer railroads are a must for the United States, as evidenced by the ongoing trauma in East Palestine, Ohio.

Yet statistics from the industry show that the number of accidents increased in 2023 over the two previous years.

The year 2023, of course, is when a train carrying vinyl chloride went off the tracks in East Palestine and released its deadly contents, one year ago Saturday.

Five cars were intentionally ignited to avoid a highly destructive explosion but unintentionally creating a hazardous waste emergency.

As reported by Blade environmental writer Tom Henry, the village of East Palestine remains traumatized of the derailment that occurred on Feb. 3, 2023.

At the same time, village residents are recovering, and are divided as to whether the damage is permanent and devastating or is on its way to being repaired.

The mayor of East Palestine, Trent Conaway, has been a pillar of leadership. He was an outspoken advocate for his village when the crisis struck. He gave up a higher paying job to devote more attention to the needs of East Palestine. Because of the mental and emotional strain, he has sought out a therapist.

Despite the damage to the village, the massive deaths of wildlife that have been recorded, and the credible worries about long-term health damage for citizens who live in the area, and for the economic future of East Palestine, the actual extent of health injury is unknown.

Some are ready to move on, others believe the cleanup and the commitments to continue monitoring the environment and treating the residents medically isn’t enough.

Much has been done in East Palestine in response to the accident. That includes establishment of a clinic that Gov. Mike DeWine expects to stay open indefinitely.

As a response to a disaster that all wish had not happened, the East Palestine case so far shows state and federal governments and a big corporation, Norfolk Southern responsibly stepping to be correct the damage.

The last step is one that appears to be stuck in committee — the Rail Safety Act, jointly sponsored by Ohio U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown (D.) and J.D. Vance (R.).

A sticking point is the railroads’ opposition to a more robust wheel heat sensor. A heat sensor would have detected the overheated wheel that triggered the derailment.

We don’t have the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigative report yet, but many reports after the accident cited the failure or lack of action based on a trackside heat sensor. An overheated wheel was seen in multiple railside webcams before the wheel failed and the train derailed in East Palestine, a few miles from Pennsylvania.

That same train passed through Toledo earlier on that day.

If a failed or missing heat sensor was the trigger, then the Rail Safety Act must require a solution so it doesn’t happen again.

The problem of overheated wheel bearings appears to be getting worse, not better.

These data show there were 17 incidents involving overheated wheel bearings in the first 10 months of last year — more than double the six recorded in the same period of 2022 and higher than any full year’s total since 2014.

The legacy of East Palestine will be multilayered. One aspect of it is that rail transportation must become safer.