Rail union member: more staff, shorter trains may prevent chemical cargo derailments

The Feb. 3, 2023 derailment of about three dozen rail cars, including five with vinyl chloride monomer (an intermediate for PVC), along the Ohio River, the biggest tributary of the Mississippi by volume, and the ensuing fire for about five days forcing a town’s evacuation, put a spotlight on rail transportation safety concerns expressed by rail worker unions.

PVC pipes are produced with VCM. Image courtesy of seo24mx, Pixabay.

“More staffing would have most assuredly prevented this derailment,” said by email retired railroad worker and union official Jeff Kurtz, nearly two weeks after the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio (4,700 residents), of a train said to have included as many as 150 rail cars.

“Reducing the size of the train while adding a caboose staffed with a qualified conductor and brakeman, especially given the time of night the accident happened, would have prevented this accident.  Years ago, this is how we operated and very rarely did a defective journal result in a derailment,” Kurtz said

“If by some slight chance it would have derailed, the damage would probably have been much less because of the train being smaller,” Kurtz added.

The accident occurred just two months after the U.S. chemical industry expressed relief that a planned railroad workers strike had been prevented. This was after the U.S. Senate forced rail unions on Dec. 1 to accept a tentative agreement reached in September.

The Senate voted in December 80-15 to make any strike illegal. This resulted in chemical companies and refiners expressing relief a strike that would have started within only eight days was averted. Yet discontent by a significant number of rail union members remained, including about staffing policies.

Derailment aftermath

The Environmental Protection Agency said on Feb. 14 that some of the worst threats may no longer be present.

“After the fire was extinguished on Feb. 8, the threat of vinyl chloride fire producing phosgene and hydrogen chloride no longer exists,” it said. Phosgene can be formed when chlorine, hydrogen, and carbon are exposed to high temperatures.

“Since the fire went out on February 8, EPA air monitoring has not detected any levels of health concern in the community that are attributed to the train derailment,” said on Feb. 14 Debra Shore, regional administrator with the Environmental Protection Agency.

State and local agencies were at the time conducting sampling throughout the Ohio River, the EPA added.

“EPA Region 5 also issued a general notice of potential liability letter to Norfolk Southern to document the release of hazardous contaminants. The letter outlines EPA actions at the site and the potential to hold the railroad accountable for associated costs (...),” the statement said.

Norfolk Southern advances cleanup

The first phase of the cleanup involved “excavating more than 9,000 tons of contaminated debris and soil for proper disposal” and removing over a million gallons of impacted water, Norfolk said.

“The contaminated water is being transported out of the area by truck for disposal at a licensed disposal facility, and the contaminated soil will be transported away from the site to an appropriately permitted facility once all approvals are received,” it added.

A journalist arrested

Evan Lambert, a journalist from U.S.-based news media NewsNation who was arrested while reporting about the derailment consequences in a conference, said on Feb. 16 that he believes that the incident when he was forced down to the floor and put in handcuffs and deprived of his freedom for several hours, gave visibility to the derailment.

“The whole thing is unfortunate but I am very happy that this has brought further attention to the real story which is what is going on there in East Palestine,” he said in comments to media.

“I know a lot of the outlets were not really talking about it. We were there on the ground but a lot of national outlets were not really talking about It until my arrest and that became so visible so I’m thankful that I was shining a light on this environmental disaster,” Lambert said.

Lambert was referring to comments by NewsNation, as well as other media, that pointed in early February to extensive coverage of U.S. mainstream media related to weather balloons adrift that were shot down by jet fighters but little on the derailment.

Wildlife impacted

“The total estimated number of aquatic animals killed remains at approximately 3,500 (...) Most of these deaths are believed to have been caused by the immediate release of contaminants into the water (...)” the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said.

Tissue samples from one beef calf that died on Feb. 11 were being examined at the time, it added.

In addition to VCM, other chemicals involved in the spill included butyl acrylate, ethylene glycol and isobutylene, according to reports.

“PSR” under scrutiny

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said on Dec. 13, 2022 that it has been looking at reports from rail union members about the impact of Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR).

The GAO prepared a Report to Congressional Requesters titled Freight Rail Information on Precision-Scheduled Railroading where it stated that it “associated the following operational changes with PSR: (1) reductions in staff, (2) longer trains, and (3) reductions in assets such as locomotives.”

“For example, the overall number of staff among the seven largest freight railroads (known as Class I) decreased by about 28% from 2011 through 2021. Further, all seven railroads said they have increased the length of trains in recent years,” it said.

“Class I railroad representatives stated that service changes associated with PSR were intended to increase the efficiency and reliability of the railroads. However, freight rail customers GAO interviewed identified concerns such as reduced frequency and reliability of service, and increased fees,” the GAO said.

Human Error

According to the Office of Safety Analysis of the Federal Railroad Administration, total rail accidents attributable to human error were 341 in 2013, and 348 in 2021.

Over the same period, accidents attributable to track problems fell from 206 to 160 while accidents related to signals fell from 25 to 10. Accidents related to equipment fell from 100 to to 93 while accidents related to miscellaneous causes declined from 210 to 196.

Three states had more than 250 train accidents according to information from a recent period. According to another table titled Train Accidents by State (2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021) Georgia had 277; Ohio had 255 and Texas had 262,

According to State Rankings as of 2019 by the Association of American Railroads in terms of rail mileage, Texas, with 10,460 rail miles, has the most rail miles. Illinois had 6,883 rail miles and Ohio 5, 330 rail miles.

Rail customers stated that unreliable service can have significant effects, even causing production shutdowns, the GAO said, echoing past complaints by the petrochemical industry related to service and pricing.

By Renzo Pipoli