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There are about 3 U.S. train derailments per day. They aren't usually major disasters

Portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train remained on fire Feb. 4 after derailing the previous day in East Palestine, Ohio.
Gene J. Puskar
Portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train remained on fire Feb. 4 after derailing the previous day in East Palestine, Ohio.

A Norfolk Southern train derailed Saturday night in Springfield, Ohio, with 28 cars going off the rails, the company said. No one was injured.

The incident came about a month after a calamitous accident in East Palestine, Ohio, where a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed near the small town.

Toxic chemicals leaked into the air and water, some of which were in danger of exploding, which promoted authorities to conduct a "controlled burn" and temporarily evacuate the area. The environmental recovery effort is still underway.

Residents and transportation watchers have been alarmed by the Ohio derailments, but while experts say the amount of damage caused by the accident in East Palestine is unusual, two derailments in one month is not.

In fact, derailments occur far more frequently than that — but typically without such significant fallout. Still, after such a concerning incident, there has been a renewed push in the past month to tighten safety measures on the nation's railroads.

In 2022, there were more than 1,000 train derailments in the U.S.

There were at least 1,164 train derailments across the country last year, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration. That means the country is averaging roughly three derailments per day.

"Yet we're not hearing left and right about derailments in various places around the country, and the main reason for that is they are not really a major event," Mehdi Ahmadian, a professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, told NPR.

Industry leaders say that most derailments occur within the confines of rail yards, and suggest that trains are safer than other modes of transportation, such as driving. Last year train derailments injured sixteen people and left one person dead, federal data shows.

"Our railroad safety is very good, even though from time to time there are incidents like [the derailment in East Palestine] that are high visibility and raise alarm with the public," Ahmadian said.

Human error was the leading cause of derailments in 2022, with track defects being the second-most-common reason trains went off the rails. In many previous years, track defects were the most frequent cause.

Tracks also can break and cause train car wheels to derail, Ahmadian said, or a train's wheel axles may fail over time simply because of the heavy loads and high speeds associated with modern train travel.

Railroads have gotten safer over time, but accidents persist

The railroad industry says this is the safest period in the history of train transportation.

Overall accidents have fallen by 44% since 2000, and accidents caused by track and equipment problems also are trending downward, according to the American Association of Railroads, which represents the major freight railroads, Amtrak and other rail lines.

"Without a doubt, moving goods by rail is the absolute safest way to move people and cargo across land in this country," AAR president and CEO Ian Jefferies told NPR. "But even one incident can have a dramatic impact on a community, and as an industry that operates within communities throughout the country, we take that responsibility incredibly seriously."

Industry leaders point to advancements in rail safety technology that have made train transportation more secure, including inspection tools that can identify issues with equipment and tracks that may not be obvious to a human observer.

Since the late 1970s, derailments have shrunk by more than three quarters, federal data shows. In 1978 alone, there were a whopping 8,763 derailments across the U.S., which killed 41 people.

The Association of American Railroads announced Wednesday that the freight rail industry would pursue additional safety measures, including training for local first responders, more confidential reporting of safety issues and an increase in the number of sensors that can detect overheated wheel bearings.

The National Transportation Safety Board's preliminary report about the East Palestine crash said a wheel bearing overheated on the Norfolk Southern train shortly before it derailed last month, but investigators haven't definitively established a cause.

There has been a renewed push for rail safety measures since East Palestine

Still, advocates for rail safety and railroad workers unions say that the number of accidents remains too high, and that companies aren't doing enough to prioritize safety on the tracks.

Jeremy Ferguson with the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, criticized railroads for abandoning well-established safety practices in favor of policies that save money, such as increasing train lengths and introducing automation while reducing crew sizes.

Jonathon Long, general chairman of the American Rail System Federation, said in a March letter to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine that automated track inspections should be added to current safety rules — not replace them — and accused Norfolk Southern of putting profits over safety prior to the East Palestine derailment.

"[Norfolk Southern] and other railroads alike must be stopped from continuing their cost-cutting business model and start focusing on how they can improve their performance to be as safe as possible," Long wrote.

Last month, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg criticized railroads for their "vigorous resistance" to additional safety measures in the past, and said they must change following the East Palestine crash.

Buttigieg called on Norfolk Southern and other railroads to adopt new safety measures, such as implementing novel inspection technologies without reducing human inspections, proactively notifying state emergency response teams of the presence of cars carrying hazardous materials, and providing paid sick leave to workers.

The NTSB announced on Tuesday that it was opening a special investigation into Norfolk Southern in response to the "number and significance" of accidents involving the railroad.

NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy said last month that the derailment in East Palestine was, like other transportation disasters, "100% preventable."

"We call things accidents. There is no accident," Homendy said. "Every single event that we investigate is preventable."

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