This browser is not actively supported anymore. For the best passle experience, we strongly recommend you upgrade your browser.
Insights Insights
| 2 minutes read

What's Up with All of These Train Derailments?

There have been several major train derailments recently. The most catastrophic of which occurred one year ago in East Palestine Ohio, at approximately 9pm on February 3, 2023. The train consisted of 150 cars, almost 2 miles long, 20 of which were loaded with hazardous waste. One-Third, or 51 of the 150 cars derailed  off the tracks, including 11 tanker cars containing hazardous waste. Six of these 11 tanker cars spilled 100,000 gallons of vinyl chloride, benzene, and butyl acrylate into surrounding land and waterways. At the time of the derailment, there were 3 crew members aboard the train, having been alerted to a problem with a overheated wheel bearing, they were actively attempting to stop the train.   

The derailment soon gained national attention. By February 5, authorities became concerned some of the remaining 5 tanker cars containing hazardous waste but  did not derail  and did not spill could explode. On February 6, authorities ordered mandatory evacuation of a 2-mile radius of the derailment, and conducted a controlled release and burn of the 5 cars containing hazardous substances that had not already spilled. Authorities are still conducting a cleanup of the area, and residents are still suffering impacts to health and property values, that will likely continue for years to come.  

Most are startled to learn during the past 50 years, there have been an average of 2,800 train derailments, each year. That's a lot of derailments.  An overwhelming majority of these events never made the news. Many occur in rail yards and sidings, not on main line tracks crossing cities and towns. The peak was reached in 1978 with 9,400 derailments. Ironically, in 2023, there were actually less than 1,000 train derailments. However, the derailment in East Palestine Ohio, on February 3, 2023, and subsequent release of hazardous materials, brought national attention and criticism to train derailments.

So what is causing all these derailments?  The answer turns on the speed at which the train is traveling and the location of the derailment. Broken rails or rail welds are the leading cause of derailments at all speeds and locations. Derailments caused by human related factors (switching, handling, braking) are common at speeds less than 10 mph. These low speeds derailments typically occur in rail yards or on sidings. While equipment related factors (axles, wheels, bearings) are a common cause of train derailments at speeds greater than 25 mph. These higher speeds typically occur on main lines traveling through cities and towns.

The National Transportation Safety Board or NTSB released findings on February 5, 2024 indicating the derailment in East Palestine was caused by an overheated wheel bearing on one rail car. The 3 man crew on the train, received alarms from 3 heat detectors positioned at intervals along the track, prior to the derailment.  The alarms indicated the wheel assembly, or truck assembly, was suffering from mechanical problems. Surveillance cameras located at businesses and homes along the tracks starting 20 miles before the derailment site recorded flames shooting from a truck assembly beneath one rail car.  At the time of the derailment, the crew was attempting an emergency brake application, however, on such a large train, braking can take many miles to complete. 

The rail industry is considering 2 technical upgrades to avoid derailments like the one that occurred in East Palestine. One upgrade would involve incorporating Artificial Intelligence or AI into heat detectors along the rail lines. Once the railside AI was triggered, it would automatically cause the train to commence braking without the need for human intervention. The other upgrade would involve the use of electronically controlled pneumatic brakes or ECP.   Updated ECP brakes, will reduce stopping distance by 60% in comparison to the conventional air brakes. Whatever upgrades are adopted by the rail industry, they cannot come soon enough for the residents of East Palestine.

Subscribe to Taylor English Insights by topic here.


current events, dispute resolution, fractional general counsel, litigation, articles, insights, news, adr, appellate, contract disputes, corporate, corporate and business, environmental litigation, investigations, media, product liability, real estate, real estate litigation, trial practice, ai and blockchain, construction, insurance, technology, careers, community, nix_jeff