The disastrous derailment of a 150-car freight train in East Palestine, OH, on February 3 has led to a number of consequences. As it should.
The most recent one: a bipartisan measure introduced by U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and JD Vance (R-OH), along with four other legislators of both parties, to mandate greater railroad safety.
The Railway Safety Act of 2023 “will take a number of key steps to improve rail safety protocols, such as enhancing safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials, establishing requirements for wayside defect detectors, creating a permanent requirement for railroads to operate with at least two-person crews, increasing fines for wrongdoing committed by rail carriers, and more,” according to Vance’s website.
“Wayside defect detectors” are also known as hot box detectors or hot bearing detectors (HBDs). They sense the wheel temperatures of passing trains.
An overheated wheel bearing was a partial cause of the 150-car train disaster in East Palestine.
Even apart from the legislation, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has issued a safety advisory: “Preliminary investigation of recent train derailments indicates the cause of, or contributing factor to, the [derailment] incidents was a mechanical failure, specifically burnt journal bearings. Accordingly, FRA is issuing this Safety Advisory to make recommendations to enhance the mechanical reliability of rolling stock and the safety of railroad operations.” Safety Advisory 2023-01; Evaluation of Policies and Procedures Related to the Use and Maintenance of Hot Bearing Wayside Detectors | FRA (dot.gov)
The federal advisory says: “Since 2021, at least five derailments occurred that were suspected of being caused by burnt journal bearings.” Two of these, “reported to FRA by the Kansas City Southern Railway (KCS), occurred on August 2, 2021, and December 3, 2021, and in both cases, wayside detectors, known as HBDs, flagged a suspect bearing, but the crews were either unable to act in time to prevent a derailment or were directed to continue the train move resulting in a derailment” (emphasis added).
In short, over the past two years, at least two derailments occurred not because of an HBD failure, but because its warnings were ignored.
“Railroad unions say the main problem is that corporate cost-cutting measures are eating into safety and raising the likelihood of disaster,” comments Politico. ‘The longer the train, the heavier the train’ — Ohio disaster calls attention to freight’s growing bulk – POLITICO. “This theme—corporate cost-cutting over safety—also underpinned part of why railroad unions threatened to strike last year.”
One cost-cutting measure, a proposed elimination of conductors on freight trains (meaning that the trains would be operated by one person alone), was a major cause for dispute in the railway strike of late 2022. Rail strike averted, but problems remain – Produce Blue Book The new legislation would mandate two-person crews.
It’s true that railroads account for a small, though significant, percentage of fresh fruit and vegetable transport. But the last two years have taught us the intricacy and fragility of supply chains.
Dysfunction anywhere is a disadvantage—if not a disaster—for all.