After East Palestine derailment, experts say a similar train disaster in CT is less likely
Most hazardous materials in Connecticut are transported on interstate highways, rather than train tracks, presenting fewer opportunities for toxic train spills.
As federal agencies continue to investigate the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, experts here in Connecticut say the state is at lower risk for a similar calamity.
Trains carrying hazardous material have derailed half a dozen times in Connecticut over the last decade, according to federal records. While those derailments caused nearly half a million dollars in damage to tracks and equipment, none led to the release of harmful substances, the records show.
The relatively low occurrence of freight rail accidents in the state isn’t surprising because trains move only a small portion of freight that passes through the region, said Jim Cameron, former chairman of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council.
Cameron, who writes about transportation issues as a columnist for CT Mirror, said Connecticut’s railroads were instrumental to the state’s development, especially along the coast. But today, most hazardous materials are transported on interstate highways, rather than train tracks.
“I’m not really concerned about safety on our railroads within the state, at least from the point of view of dangerous derailments,” Cameron said. “Yes, tracks do split. Occasionally, a car may derail, but we’re not talking about anything close to the kind of conditions that we've seen in East Palestine.”
Investigators probing the February 2023 derailment in Ohio have focused on an overheated wheel bearing as the potential cause. Fourteen cars carrying vinyl chloride, a toxic chemical associated with liver cancer and other cancers, were involved in the crash, sparking health and environmental concerns in the area.
East Palestine, located near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, is home to about 4,700 people.
While the derailment garnered national attention, such accidents are less common today because rail safety has improved drastically over the last century, said Allan Zarembski, a professor at the University of Delaware and director of the school’s railroad engineering and safety program.
Congress and the Federal Railroad Administration implemented key safety measures, spurred by fatal accidents in the early 2000s. Those measures include instituting speed limits and installing so-called Positive Train Control (PTC) technology, designed to prevent trains from colliding with each other, going off the rails at high speed, passing into work zones or traveling onto the wrong track.
In 2008, Congress mandated installation of PTC systems on main line railroads that carry passenger trains and trains carrying certain hazardous materials. According to the Association of American Railroads, PTC is now in operation on all required stretches of passenger and freight rail in the U.S.
Rail operators have also taken steps to reduce the likelihood of chemical spills by reinforcing tank cars.
Accidents are now caused by less common events, which can be difficult to spot and prevent, Zarembski said.
“The problem is that there is no low-hanging fruit,” Zarembski said. “There’s no ‘Oh my god, if you only did this thing, everything would be wonderful,’ type of situation. Now what we’re doing is we’re taking up the unusual events, the low probability of occurrence events, the rare events, which still happen.”
Connecticut has 207 miles of railroad, including privately-owned freight rails that operate under federal common carrier regulations.
Shipments containing some 1.5 million tons of freight originate on these Connecticut tracks, containing primarily non-metallic minerals, waste, scrap, lumber, food, consumer goods and petroleum products.
Much of that freight transportation is conducted by Genesee & Wyoming, a private company that runs some 100 short-line and regional railroads in the United States, including the Connecticut Southern Railroad, the New England Central Railroad and the Providence & Worcester Railroad in Connecticut. The company reported 22 derailments in North America in 2021, the most recent year it has reported data.
The company did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding its safety program.
Norfolk Southern, the rail company involved in the Ohio crash, said it will add more safety measures, including increasing the use of detectors that spot overheating bearings.
Meanwhile, Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance introduced the Railway Safety Act of 2023, which, according to the Associated Press, would require railroads to create disaster plans and tell emergency response commissions what hazardous materials are going through their states.
Norfolk Southern is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Administration for five significant accidents involving the company since December 2021. It’s the first such rail investigation since 2014.