A year after a train derailment in eastern Palestine, rail safety is still in the spotlight

On Feb. 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern Corp. train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, bringing the issue of rail safety into the national spotlight.

No one was killed or injured in the derailment, but the accident was described as a “public relations nightmare” for Norfolk Southern NSC,
and the railway sector. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the derailed cars included 11 tank cars carrying hazardous materials that later caught fire, fueling fires that damaged 12 other rail cars.

Shockwaves from the accident continue to reverberate through the industry and on Capitol Hill, prompting the introduction of the Rail Safety Act. On Wednesday, Senator Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington and chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation , again urged Congress to pass the bipartisan bill.

“In the year since the East Palestine derailment, rail safety has gone in the wrong direction,” Cantwell said, noting that the number of derailments from East Palestine has increased by more than 13%.

Related: ‘We’ll do whatever it takes’: Norfolk Southern CEO

Supply chain analytics firm Everstream Analytics says accidents have occurred on mainlines of the Union Pacific Corp. UNP Class I railroads,
CSX Corp. CSX,
Norfolk Southern, Canadian National Railway Co. CNI,

and BNSF from last year through October increased 11% compared to the same period in 2022. Derailments involving Class I railroads also increased 13.5% year over year, according to Everstream.

According to the U.S. government’s Surface Transportation Board, a Class I railroad is defined as any carrier that earns annual revenue greater than $1.032 billion. Canadian Pacific Kansas City Ltd. CP,

it is also classified as a Class I railroad. The Federal Railroad Administration defines a mainline as “a segment or route of railroad tracks over which 5 million or more gross tons of rail freight traffic are carried annually.”

The rail industry says FRA’s latest safety data tells a different, more optimistic story. Based on FRA’s preliminary data for January-November, which is the latest available, there were 3,105 rail crashes per million rail miles in 2023, down from 3,340 rail crashes per million rail miles in the same period of the previous year. The number for 2021 was 2,935 crashes per million rail miles, while the previous three years were in a similar range.

Related: Norfolk Southern shares are posting biggest gain since 2020 thanks to investor-led shakeup, but one analyst notes skepticism

Additionally, according to FRA data, five employee deaths occurred in calendar year 2023, down from seven in 2022 and eight in 2021. “2023 saw the lowest number of employee deaths in the history of the industry,” said a spokesperson for the American Association of Railroads. he told MarketWatch. “While even one fatality is too many, the railroad continues to make progress in its enduring responsibility to ensure that every railroad worker returns home safely at the end of each day.”

In a statement released last week, the AAR highlighted Class I railroads’ efforts to increase rail safety and prevent derailments. In particular, he highlighted initiatives such as increasing hot bearing detectors, or HBDs, along major routes and implementing a new industry standard to stop and inspect trains when an HBD reading exceeds 170 degrees Fahrenheit. HBDs are installed on the sides of tracks and use infrared technology to monitor wheel bearing temperatures and prevent overheating.

Additionally, according to the AAR, more than 99.9% of all hazardous materials transported by rail reach their destination without being released due to a train accident. “The fact remains that rail is by far the safest way to move goods, including hazardous materials, over land, and we are in the safest era ever for rail safety,” the AAR spokesperson told MarketWatch .

A spokesperson for Norfolk Southern told MarketWatch that the company’s FRA accident rate declined 10% year-over-year in 2023. During last week’s fourth-quarter earnings press conference, Paul Duncan, Norfolk Southern’s chief operating officer, said the company ended 2023 with a 42% reduction in the mainline accident rate and the fewest accidents on main lines since 1999.

Related: Norfolk Southern charges again for Ohio derailment and loses profit again

CSX told MarketWatch that its train accident rate in 2023 was lower than the previous year. “Safety is an ongoing commitment and core value for CSX,” a spokesperson said. “We are proud of our level of safety and will never stop working to improve it.”

BNSF told MarketWatch that its accident rate is also declining. “Although the full FRA report for the past year is yet to be released, covering the last four years inclusive [year-to-date] In 2023, the accident rate on the BNSF mainline decreased by more than 15%,” a spokesperson said.

“For example, a few decades ago it would not have been uncommon for more than 20 accidents per year to occur to railway equipment due to a faulty main (wheel) bearing,” the spokesperson added. “In recent years, we have reduced the number of accidents reported in the diaries to single digits, while continuing our path towards zero. This is thanks to the development and use of hot bearing detectors (HBD), in combination with trending algorithms and management instructions.”

“It is also worth noting that rail is still the safest form of land and surface transportation and has continued to improve and become safer over time,” the BNSF spokesperson said. “Rail accidents continue to be reduced through the use of extensive training, processes and new technologies.”

In a recent article on Union Pacific’s website, Eric Gehringer, the company’s executive vice president of operations, said that major derailments on Union Pacific’s network decreased by 26% in 2023 compared to 2019, while the average maximum train length has increased. Over the past 10 years, track-related derailments have decreased by 28 percent, Gehringer added.

Related: CSX enters into paid sick leave agreement with Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen

Gehringer said Union Pacific has a network of more than 7,000 roadside sensing devices that monitor the condition of freight cars and locomotives in real time, and the company plans to add more.

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