Norfolk Southern's accident rate spiked over the last decade

Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo

The country’s major freight railroads were becoming more dangerous even before the train wreck in East Palestine, Ohio, that sparked a chemical fire and weeks of political controversy.

Norfolk Southern Corp., whose train derailed in East Palestine a month ago, had the biggest increase in its accident rate over the last 10 years, rising nearly three times as fast as the industry average, according to an analysis by POLITICO’s E&E News of Federal Railroad Administration data.

"Clearly, more commonsense regulations are needed to prevent disasters from happening,” said Mike Schade, a leader of the advocacy group Toxic-Free Future, which advocates for safer chemicals policies. “And we now have a major environmental disaster on our hands as a result."

Norfolk Southern's accident rate jumped 80.8 percent between 2013 and 2022, to 3.658 accidents per million miles traveled, from 2.023. Norfolk is one of seven "Class 1" railroads. Overall, the group had 27 percent more accidents, a rate of 3.067 accidents per million miles traveled, up from a rate of 2.415 in 2013.

The increased accident rate comes as the chemical industry predicts a rise in the amount of chemicals that will be shipped by rail, trucks and other forms of transportation.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday the National Transportation Safety Board announced a special investigation into Norfolk Southern’s "safety culture" after the railroad had its third serious accident in just over a month.

Another Norfolk Southern train derailed Saturday in Springfield, Ohio, and a conductor for the railroad was killed Tuesday by a dump truck as a train was moving through a steel mill in Cleveland, the company said.

The conductor, 46-year-old Louis Shuster, was a father and an Army veteran who had worked at the railroad since 2005, according to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

“The NTSB is concerned that several organizational factors may be involved in the accidents, including safety culture,” the safety board said in a news release.

The American Association of Railroads argues that the safety data E&E News reviewed includes minor collisions that happen in train yards and that the number of “main line” incidents like the one in East Palestine has been dropping.

“If you were going to look at the main line accidents … 2022 was the lowest year in history overall,” Mike Rush, the trade group’s senior vice president of operations and safety, said in an interview.

Norfolk Southern, whose CEO is due to testify in a Senate hearing Thursday, declined to comment on the federal safety data but said in a prepared statement that the company is committed to safety.

“We diligently monitor our trains and infrastructure to identify potential hazards, and we invest approximately a billion annually into maintaining our infrastructure every year,” the statement said.

About 19 percent of U.S. chemical output travels by rail, according to AAR. The bulk — 57 percent — moves by truck, and the remainder by ships, barges and pipelines.

Trucks by far have the highest incident rate.

Of all transportation incidents involving hazardous materials in 2022, trucks were responsible for nearly 94 percent, according to Bureau of Transportation statistics. Trains were responsible for a little more than 1 percent.

Truck accidents have been rising, along with other road accidents, for a variety of reasons, including speeding and distracted driving, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

"The road safety is nowhere near as good as rail safety,” said Nicholas Little, the director of railway education at Michigan State University. “There's less chance of a vehicle-to-vehicle accident … and, also, there's less habitation around the tracks, because it's not just freeways that the trucks will be going on, they'd be going on local roads, as well."

But not every chemical is suitable for rail transportation.

How chemicals are transported usually depends on the quantity needed and location of its final destination, Little said. And when rail accidents do happen, the potential for greater environmental damage is larger because trains can carry much bigger quantities of chemicals than trucks, he said.

"Even the biggest highway truck only carries a quarter of the volume that a railcar can carry,” Little said.

The FRA data includes derailments, collisions between trains and other on-rail problems. The numbers cover only the first 11 months of 2022.

Looking strictly at on-rail accidents, three of the freight railroads — Norfolk Southern, CSX Corp. and Union Pacific Corp. — had higher rates over the last 10 years.

Norfolk Southern had one of the lowest accident rates in 2013 and now has the second highest behind Union Pacific, which averaged 4.359 collisions per million miles last year.

The accident rate didn't appear correlated to the amount of freight on Norfolk Southern's system. The company's revenue ton mileage, a metric based on the revenue from one ton of freight shipped over one mile, rose from 2013 to 2018, before falling during the pandemic and bouncing back in the last two years, according to securities filings. Overall, the company had about an 8 percent drop in revenue ton miles over the last decade.

The accident rates at Union Pacific, CSX and Norfolk Southern are far lower than they were in the 1970s and '80s. But they also show a stark contrast to the other four Class 1 railroads — BNSF, Canadian National, Kansas City Southern and Canadian Pacific — where accident rates fell between 5 percent and 65 percent over the last decade.

Political oversight

To date, the bulk of the congressional investigations and other political fallout have focused on the Transportation Department and Environmental Protection Agency, not on the rise in accident rates across the industry.

Politicians from both parties have called for stricter safety standards, although it’s unclear if the proposals would have prevented the Ohio wreck.

The 149-car train derailed shortly before 9 p.m. on Feb. 3 just outside East Palestine, a town of about 4,700 that sits near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. An automated system detected an overheated wheel bearing on one of the cars, which triggered an alarm.

The crew was trying to stop the train when a section of it derailed. Thirty-eight cars left the tracks and several of them caught fire.

Some of the cars contained hazardous chemicals, including vinyl chloride and other chemicals. Vinyl chloride, which is used to make common types of plastic, is a carcinogen that creates poisonous gases when it burns, and it also poses an explosion risk.

Three days after the train derailed, local and state officials decided to release the vinyl chloride into a trench and conduct a controlled burn, rather than risk a larger explosion. No one was killed or seriously injured, but the fire sent up a plume of black smoke that left residents complaining about lung irritation and foul odors.

EPA has tested air quality in more than 500 homes, while state officials test the local water system; they have found no hazardous chemical levels. Independent tests by Texas A&M University found high levels of chemicals in the air, which could lead to health problems if the levels persist.

Norfolk Southern announced a series of safety improvements Monday, including assessing how frequently its hot bearing detectors are spaced and testing a new type of hot bearing detector and a new type of acoustic sensor. The company is also developing new technology to search for track defects and is working with the rest of the rail industry on setting standards for when hot bearing detectors should trigger an alarm.

Norfolk Southern and the other six major railroads announced last week that they’re joining a program that allows employees to confidentially report close calls among trains without fear of retaliation.

Safety advocates have used the wreck to call for tighter regulations on rails, calls that have been echoed by several officeholders and by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

Since the accident, DOT has announced "targeted track inspections" for routes known to carry hazardous materials and issued a safety advisory for certain aluminum tank car covers, a part that is now known to have melted during the Ohio crash.

Republicans on the House Oversight and Accountability Committee have announced hearings into Buttigieg’s handling of the wreck, including when he knew about the derailment. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia asked Buttigieg for information about the adoption of a more modern braking system, known as electronically controlled pneumatic brakes.

The system allows engineers to activate the brakes simultaneously on every car in a train, which could help trains stop more quickly and smoothly. The conventional air brakes on most trains use an air hose that connects the locomotive to the freight cars, so it transmits the braking signal more slowly than an electronic signal.

Republican Sens. J.D. Vance of Ohio and Marco Rubio of Florida sent a letter to Buttigieg asking about both the length of the train and the number of crew members on board. Last week, the two senators were part of a bipartisan group that introduced a railroad safety bill.

Long trains, short crews

The Federal Railroad Administration defines a train with 150 or more cars as “very long” — one more than the train that derailed in East Palestine.

A 2019 report by the Government Accountability Office said the number of long trains on the rails was increasing and said crew training “is particularly important for their safe operation.”

The FRA is currently writing rules that would require two-person crews on more freight trains. The industry has resisted the idea, saying that personnel decisions should be made by the companies and arguing that automation can safely reduce the number of crew members.

Automated trains have been operated safely in other countries, including in Australia, where they’re used to transport long trains of iron ore, said Allan Zarembski, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Delaware who specializes in railroads.

All the proposed solutions come with benefits and drawbacks, Zarembski said. Using electronically controlled brakes would improve a train’s stopping power, but it costs more than conventional air brakes. And the system would have to be widely adopted because railroads often haul carloads of hazardous materials mixed with other freights cars.

Electronically controlled braking systems “are at the top of the list” for suggested safety improvements on freight trains, said Little, of Michigan State University. “But when you're dealing with over 1.6 million rail cars that are in operation, it's a very, very big task."

Michael Gorman, a rail consultant and faculty at University of Dayton’s school of business administration, echoed industry concerns, warning of “unintended consequences of poorly thought-out legislation."

Expensive rail safety improvements would create a higher cost of shipping and could turn businesses away from trains and toward the more accident-prone trucks, Gorman said.

“Right now, we're in reaction mode, and overreaction is likely to be the results,” Gorman said.

In a 2015 report on rail safety that was written to help the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection cope with an influx of trains carrying crude oil, Zarembski made a series of recommendations.

Some of the steps are mundane, including slower speeds through populated area, while others are high-tech, such as more frequent use of automated track inspections. None of them were new ideas at the time, Zarembski said.

“I haven’t seen anything revolutionary coming down the pike … that’s being ignored by the railroad industry that’s an obvious no-brainer,” he said.

“I think the process is going to continue to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.”