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HomeUS NewsNorfolk Southern's Ohio train disaster could happen again. Here's why

Norfolk Southern’s Ohio train disaster could happen again. Here’s why

  • Norfolk Southern, the company behind the Ohio chemical spill, fought against a new U.S. Department of Transportation safety rule that may have helped limit the impact of this month’s derailment.
  • As railroad operators have faced more competition with long-haul truckers, the major companies have worked to decrease costs, including by cutting the workforce.
  • Overall train length and weight have both grown over the last decade partly in an effort  by companies to be more efficient. But, when an emergency occurs, stopping quickly with heavier, longer trains is far more difficult.
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In 2013, a train derailment and subsequent fire in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killed 47 people and required all but three downtown buildings to be demolished for safety reasons. The following year, a derailment in Casselton, North Dakota, spilled nearly 500,000 gallons of crude oil and caused $13.5 million in damage, prompting the Obama administration to push for a new safety rule to govern the transportation of hazardous materials, avoid environmental disasters and save lives.

The effort to create a new safety rule was fought by industry lobbyists, including Norfolk Southern Corp., the Atlanta-based company whose train derailed in eastern Ohio and spilled chemicals earlier this month, leaving residents in East Palestine worried about their air, soil and water quality.

When the safety rule was issued in 2015, however, it was narrowly crafted and required only  electronically controlled brakes – which applies braking simultaneously across a train rather than railcar by railcar over a span of seconds – to be installed by 2023. It applied only to certain “high-hazard flammable trains” carrying at least 20 consecutive loaded cars filled with liquids like crude oil.

The Trump administration repealed the rule three years later, stating that its cost exceeded the benefits. 

A train fire is seen from Melissa Smith's farm in East Palestine, Ohio earlier this month. A train derailment and resulting large fire prompted an evacuation order in the Ohio village near the Pennsylvania state line.

Efforts to reduce costs including lobbying against costly regulation, increasing train lengths, reduced inspection times and major cuts to the railroad workforce have made trains less safe, labor representatives and industry experts told USA TODAY, increasing the potential for accidents like the one in Ohio to become more common.

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