By Justin Franz
This week, the editors of Railfan & Railroad Magazine are looking at some of the biggest stories in railroading in 2023. Be sure to check Railfan.com every weekday all year long for all your (free) railroad news and if you like what you see, consider subscribing.
A Norfolk Southern train derailed and caught fire in eastern Ohio late Friday, forcing evacuations in the town of East Palestine, about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh…
That’s how a simple, four-paragraph story on Railfan & Railroad’s website began on the morning of February 4, about a derailment the night before in eastern Ohio. Little did anyone know, the incident would explode into one of the biggest railroad stories of the year.
On the night of February 3, an eastbound NS manifest freight with 150 cars derailed near East Palestine, forcing an evacuation of the community. Amazingly, no one was killed. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, at least 50 cars derailed and 10 of them were loaded with hazardous materials. Five of the derailed cars contained vinyl chloride, a dangerous gas used to make plastic products. The wreck caught fire and burned for days. On February 6, the railroad conducted a “controlled release” to try and burn off more material and avoid a more disastrous uncontrolled explosion. The fiery release resulted in a thick black smoke plume that looked like something from a disaster movie. The NTSB found that a hot bearing had caused the wreck.
While the fire eventually burned out, the fallout has continued for months, with dramatic images of the burning train inspiring new scrutiny aimed at railroads and their safety record. It didn’t help when other derailments also grabbed headlines, like when a Montana Rail Link train fell into the Yellowstone River in June.
In the aftermath, politicians moved to pass legislation to make railroads safer, including requiring more defect detectors. While some states, including Ohio, passed new laws they have been challenged by the railroads, which argue that state law cannot trump interstate commerce rules. Legislation at the federal level has not moved through the Washington D.C. gridlock.