Seems Like Every Train Around Is Crashing off Its Tracks…

Ever since the catastrophic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, earlier this year, it seems like the number of train crashes has increased tenfold. After East Palestine it was Springfield, Ohio, then Richland County, North Dakota, then Raymond, Minnesota, and then most recently, Paradise, Montana, where about 25 train cars derailed next to the Clark Fork River, releasing hundreds of unopened beer cases into the water (a truly devastating loss). 

But this doesn’t mean more trains are derailing. In fact, train derailments occur about three times a day in the United States and often in rural areas, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. The dramas of East Palestine’s crash caused a news frenzy (albeit a week late), and now the media is paying attention to these derailments. But will this attention last long enough to make a difference? 

Rural people are accustomed to train traffic. Goods are transported from rural areas where they’re manufactured and processed to urban areas that use the bulk of those goods. 

Rail is a cost-effective way to transport goods, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, but in recent decades rail companies have advocated for more cost-cutting measures, like increasing the length of trains and decreasing the amount of people operating them. ProPublica published a story just yesterday that showed that as trains have gotten longer – sometimes over a mile and a half in length – rail hazards have increased, and rural communities are at the frontlines of derailment if, and when, it happens. 

Some union-represented railroad workers concerned about the safety risk these cost-cutting measures create have advocated for better working conditions that would improve safety on rails. 

But last December, Congress passed a resolution to force unions to accept a contract agreement that makes it illegal for railroad workers to strike (exactly what workers wanted to do after two and a half years of stalled negotiations between unions and the rail companies). A rail strike would have caused parts of the U.S. economy to grind to a halt, which is why the government jumped to stop it

Roughly two months after Congress’ decision, disaster hit East Palestine and many have wondered whether the safety measures railroad workers had been advocating for could have prevented it. This question has circulated in big news outlets, and pressure is being placed on rail companies and the federal government to do something about these derailments that can spill hazardous waste into communities and the environment. 

Of course, most of the communities affected are small, and derailments have been happening for years. Few people remember the 2017 train crash in Hyndman, Pennsylvania, pop. 900, that destroyed houses and sparked fires via liquid propane that spilled out of 33 train cars. It took the Federal Railroad Administration three years to complete a study of the brake system in long trains, which was found to be the cause of the Hyndman crash. 

More people will likely remember the East Palestine crash, but whether that’s for the dramatic pictures they saw from afar, the personal tragedy it caused, or for the action it finally spurred in the government to improve safety measures on railroads – only time will tell.

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