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Why train derailments involving hazardous chemicals keep happening

In the wake of East Palestine, another train has derailed and caught fire in Minnesota.

A pile of burning railway tank cars stretched across a snowy field.
A train carrying ethanol derailed in Raymond, Minnesota, on Thursday.
David Joles/Star Tribune/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

A train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in Raymond, Minnesota, on Thursday, the latest such accident in recent months. Thursday’s incident comes in the wake of a major train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio on February 3, when a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals went off the tracks, spewing contaminants into the town’s air and water.

Although train derailments involving hazardous chemicals are relatively rare, the occurrence of the Minnesota derailment so close to the Ohio one has raised questions about train safety and whether new regulations are needed to prevent more of these dangerous incidents from happening in the future. According to the Washington Post, there were 1,049 train derailments last year, and 10 train incidents that involved the spillage of hazardous materials, both figures which are lower than years past.

The train derailment in Minnesota involved a 40-car train, 14 of which were hauling hazardous chemicals including ethanol, according to CNN. BNSF Railway, the company operating the train, says 22 cars derailed and four cars ignited and caught fire. Residents living within a half-mile radius of the accident were asked to evacuate as a safety precaution, though they were able to return home on Thursday afternoon. The train was also carrying corn syrup, and derailed around 1 am Central time.

Ethanol is a potentially hazardous and highly flammable chemical, which can cause symptoms including drowsiness, nausea, and unconsciousness following exposure. At this point, it’s not yet clear what caused the derailment or what additional impact it could have on the surrounding area. According to the Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s Office, the fire at the crash site is being contained.

Derailments are often tied to equipment failures, human error, and track defects

While we still don’t know what caused the Minnesota train derailment, there are factors we know about that may contribute to rail accidents overall. Human error and track defects are two of the biggest causes of derailments, for example. In cases involving hazardous chemicals, equipment failures have also played a role in the past. These issues, broadly, may be compounded by staffing cuts railroads have made in recent years and their resistance to more costly equipment upgrades.

“Rail workers, government officials, and industry analysts have long warned that such disasters are an expected consequence of an industry that has aggressively cut costs, slashed its workforce, and resisted regulation for years,” Vox’s Umair Irfan wrote regarding the East Palestine train derailment, which included 38 train cars carrying hazardous chemicals.

As Irfan explains, there have been fewer train derailments over time, but one expert told him that those that do occur tend to be worse because companies have increasingly made trains longer. Trains increased in length by 25 percent between 2008 and 2019, a decision that was aimed at reducing the staffing needed per car.

“The accidents that do occur, because of the longer trains, tend to be bigger accidents — more cars and more potential damage,” Steven Ditmeyer, a former head of the office of research and development at the FRA, told Irfan.

Additionally, there’s also been an increase in violations of federal rules meant to ensure the safe transport of hazardous materials. A USA Today report found, for example, that “federal inspectors have flagged 36% more hazmat violations compared with the five years prior,” though the uptick could be driven by greater reporting by regulators, who were called out in 2016 for lax enforcement. USA Today’s Jamie Fraser and Tami Abdollah add that most hazardous material spills from trains are caused by “equipment failure,” or “human error”:

The most common reasons trains spill hazmat cargo are equipment failure, like broken valves, or human error such as improperly preparing cargo. Hazardous materials were released in 172 train derailments over the last decade, or roughly 17 each year. But when derailments involve hazardous cargo, the sheer size and amount of materials being transported can make wrecks dangerous and costly.

Per an investigation from the National Transportation Safety Board, an overheated wheel bearing contributed to the train derailment in East Palestine.

Irfan notes that there are changes in technology — including better detection systems for mechanical failures, as well as higher quality brakes — that could help trains avoid these types of accidents. In the past, however, rail companies have balked at some of these upgrades because of cost.

Regulation on such issues has also been inconsistent based on the administration. Previously, the Obama administration required brake improvements for trains carrying flammable materials, but the Trump administration rolled that rule back. Recent accidents have led to discussions at the federal level about reinstating the Obama-era rules. Additionally, if companies shortened trains, accidents could be less intense, Ditmeyer said.

And staffing could potentially play a role, too: Rail companies have slashed worker numbers in recent years, a cost-cutting strategy that has created the need for rail employees to work long hours in difficult conditions, an issue that was evident in a strike workers mounted last year pushing for paid sick days.

Since the East Palestine derailment, lawmakers in Congress have sought more rail safety policies in order to prevent more incidents like this down the line. It’s uncertain how much these proposals would have done to prevent the Ohio accident or the Minnesota incident, but they would hold rail companies to higher standards including requirements for “‘well-trained, two-person crews aboard every train’ and around train length and weight, route selection, speed restrictions, track standards, maintenance, issue detection and more.”

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