No, Trains Aren’t Suddenly Derailing More Than Usual

Understandably, the freak accident that stemmed from the Norfolk Southern train derailment near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border and the subsequent “controlled release” of the chemicals it was carrying has come as a shock to everyone.

However, it would be a stretch to characterize the incident as a sudden and unique occurrence. In fact, train accidents are as often as they come–most probably why Norfolk Southern Corporation itself has been ironically a strong lobbying force in Congress for railway transportation safety.

READ: Norfolk Southern’s Ohio Train Derailment: Where Did All That Safety Lobbying Go?

For starters, the train derailment last week that affected the residents of East Palestine, Ohio is just one of the thousand railway-related accidents that happen annually in the United States. According to data from the Transport Department’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), there had been 1,573 train accidents in the country as of November 2022.

On average, around 66% of these train accidents are derailments.

The frequency of train accidents by state, understandably, is a function of the length of railway mileage covered by the territory. In the past four years, Texas recorded the most number of accidents (excluding highway-rail crossing) at any given year–as expected since the southern state has the largest railroad mileage in the country, reaching over 10,400 miles.

Totaling the number of train accidents per state in the last four years, Ohio comes in at fourth while Pennsylvania ties at sixth with Nebraska.

When the numbers are broken down by railway company, Norfolk Southern ranks third in total train accidents (excluding highway-rail crossing) for the last four years.

According to the FRA, the top three causes of train accidents in the United States are:

  • Human causes, accounting for 45% of train accidents in the United States from January to July 2021. Any behavior by a person that contributed to the incident, such as negligence, distraction, speeding, or carelessness, may be included.
  • Track causes, responsible for 22% of railway accidents. This could involve problems with the track and its components, such as faulty crossties, broken switches, or damaged switch points.
  • Equipment failures, accounting for 13% of all train accidents. Trains are massive, sophisticated machines with a plethora of moving parts. A serious accident can be readily caused by faulty or substandard equipment.

Just last year, the Southwest Chief, an Amtrak passenger train, derailed outside the small town of Mendon, Missouri, in June 2022. The railway collided with a dump truck that was blocking the crossing of County Road 113, some 4.8 kilometers southwest of Mendon. The crash killed four people: three train passengers and the truck driver, with up to 150 people injured.

In Pennsylvania, two train derailments made the news in 2015 and 2016. In May 2015, an Amtrak Northeast Regional train from Washington, DC destined for New York City derailed and crashed on the Northeast Corridor near Philadelphia’s Kensington district. Eight passengers and five crew members were killed, and nearly 200 were injured, 11 critically. The derailment was caused by the train’s engineer becoming distracted by other radio broadcasts and losing situational awareness, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The southbound Palmetto Amtrak train derailed in April 2016 after colliding with a backhoe while heading through Chester, Pennsylvania, killing two track workers and derailing the locomotive, as well as injuring the first two cars.

Prevalence of train accidents and derailments also occur in Canada, albeit on a relatively smaller frequency. Transportation Safety Board of Canada data shows that there were 205 main-track accidents reported in 2020, 34% of which are train derailments.

Expectedly, the province of British Columbia recorded the most accidents in the country, accounting for 30% of the figure.

The recent Ohio train accident, however, is more attention-grabbing given that the incident itself entailed a massive 50-car derailment. The visuals of the disaster, the chemicals it was bringing that’s supposed to be linked to cancer, and the subsequent decision to burn the train to clear the railway, have all contributed in bringing a wider attention to the incident.

In fact, the uncomfortable truth is that derailments, even with hazardous contents, occur more frequently than you most likely want to know. The National Transportation Statistics report for 2021 outlined that over the preceding 20 years, hazardous materials related incidents that occurred on the rail network ranged from 18 to 134 incidents per year.

While these numbers shouldn’t relegate the Ohio incident as another common accident, occurrences of train derailments are not uncommon nor sudden. Understanding the statistics on these incidents might shed some light on the main issue around this debacle: the overall safety of the country’s railway network.

Information for this briefing was found via the sources within the article. The author has no securities or affiliations related to this organization. Not a recommendation to buy or sell. Always do additional research and consult a professional before purchasing a security. The author holds no licenses.

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