After the East Palestine Train Derailment, What Role Does Technology Play in Stronger Railway Safety Measures?


Weeks after a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, forcing the temporary evacuation of thousands of residents, various groups from supply chain professionals to legislators and labor activists continue to raise calls for stronger railway safety measures.

The train, operated by Norfolk Southern, may have derailed due to an overheated wheel bearing. According to the initial investigation, hot box sensors noticed the issue miles before the train actually derailed. Following the incident, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called for the implementation of stronger railway safety measures, such as a higher fine (than the current $225,000) for railway safety violations. In addition to this, Buttigieg urged the rail industry to phase in new tank cars and provide paid sick leave to railway workers, a change of tune for the administration after last year’s block of rail workers’ demands for improved benefits and working conditions.

According to federal data, over a thousand train accidents occur every year in the United States. However, experts believe trains are still safe and reliable for both travel and freight. Fatalities caused by train accidents are few: Six deaths were reported due to train derailments that occurred between 2017 and 2021. Regardless, if a train is carrying dangerous substances, a derailment could mean the destruction of natural habitats and make whole regions uninhabitable.

Benjamin Dierker, who serves as the executive director of the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure and specializes in the legal and administrative aspects of transportation, innovation, and infrastructure, explains why employing better technology may be part of the answer to these issues.

Benjamin’s Thoughts:

“Many of the calls for new railroad safety measures are not new at all, but longstanding issues that people have been advocating for long before this incident in Ohio [that] don’t necessarily apply here. Issues like train length, train crew staffing, sick leave, precision scheduled railroading — These are hot button issues that are easy to rush in and offer when an incident takes place, but that don’t necessarily apply.

The National Transportation Safety Board actually has come out with a report, at least temporarily identifying an overheated wheel bearing as the reason for this derailment. So, all of these other issues are good to talk about when we have better data. They can be the basis for better reforms, but it’s unfortunate that there’s been a rush to revert to what people have already been advocating, and using this accident as an opportunity for that. One area that the Department of Transportation (DOT) and railroad industry seem to agree on is the need for more automatic track inspection (ATI). ATI is a piece of technology that can be mounted to the train. It affords the railroads the ability to continuously monitor track conditions, and can detect things that are not detectable by the human eye. The issue is the railroads would like to see fewer physical visual inspections because the technology can complete that, and DOT is calling for more of the technology without offsetting the cost and the need for human inspectors. So, there’s one area where potential compromise may come in. Certainly the need for more technology — although even that doesn’t directly apply necessarily to this situation, because a wheel bearing seems to be the issue rather than the track itself.

But as more data comes out, [and] as investigations are completed, we should have a better picture of what’s needed for better rail safety in the United States.”

Article by Aarushi Maheshwari.

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