Railway Safety Bills Need to Ensure Rural Areas Get Help, Experts Say

Rail-safety bills that Congress is considering in response to this year’s catastrophic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, need a guarantee that rural communities will get the help they need to deal with their increased risk for derailments, a policy expert says.

“If you look at the history of these catastrophic derailments, they’re overwhelmingly happening in rural places and in small towns across the country,” said Anne Junod, senior research associate at the nonpartisan think tank the Urban Institute, in an interview with the Daily Yonder. Her research informed the railway safety legislation being considered in the Senate.

Last week the National Transportation Safety Board held a hearing near the site of February’s East Palestine, Ohio, derailment, which resulted toxic-chemical fires that lasted two days and forced evacuations. Also last week, liquid asphalt leaked into the Yellowstone River in Montana after a train derailment and railroad bridge collapse over the river.

Rural train derailments incur the highest average damage costs, at just over $362,000 per derailment, according to a Daily Yonder analysis. This is compared to an average of $115,000 in major metropolitan areas and about $200,000 in medium-sized metropolitan areas.

Despite the likelihood and severity of rural train derailments, rural communities are less equipped than cities to adequately respond, according to Junod. This is because rail companies are not required to provide information about the contents of a derailed train to the community affected, leaving that outreach up to local officials. 

“Right now, it's on the community to get a hold of the railroad, and say, ‘what was the material that is now on fire in our community?’” Junod said. “The different types of hazardous materials will dictate the way that you respond and try to control the fire or prevent an explosion.” 

For rural areas where emergency response programs are often volunteer-led and more limited in capacity, conducting this outreach can be difficult when they’re already “punching well above their weight” to adequately respond to a disaster, Junod said. 

This was the case in rural East Palestine, Ohio, where a train carrying chemicals used to make plastic derailed and spilled into the local waterways. Residents within a mile of the crash were under a temporary evacuation order in case of an explosion. 

Reporting from CNN found that most of the firefighters who responded to the disaster were volunteers and did not have the necessary equipment to safely deal with a hazardous chemical spill. 

Nor did they know exactly what they were responding to: While the public was alerted of a vinyl chloride spill immediately after the derailment, Norfolk Southern, the train’s operator, did not disclose what the other hazardous chemicals spilled were until a week later when the company submitted a remedial action work plan to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. 

And not all affected agencies and jurisdictions were made aware of the derailment. In a letter to the president of Norfolk Southern, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro wrote that the company failed to implement Unified Command, a multi-agency or multi-jurisdictional process that involves coordinated response from agencies and organizations that service the areas affected by a disaster. 

Norfolk Southern decided to burn five of the derailed train cars containing vinyl chloride to avoid an uncontrolled explosion but did not consult Pennsylvania officials before making this decision (East Palestine is just one mile from the Pennsylvania border). 

“Failure to adhere to well-accepted standards of practice related to incident management and prioritizing an accelerated and arbitrary timeline to reopen the rail line injected unnecessary risk and created confusion in the [remediation] process,” Governor Shapiro wrote.

Rail Safety Legislation Is Underway

On June 21, 2023, the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration announced a proposed rule that would require railroads to maintain information about hazardous material shipments. The database would be accessible to authorized emergency response personnel.

All emergency responders authorized, licensed, or otherwise permitted by a state to conduct emergency response activities in their community would have access to the hazardous materials information in the event of a rail accident, according to an agency spokesperson. This means a rural volunteer fire department, for example, would have access as long as they are permitted by the town, county, or state to conduct emergency response operations.

The proposed rule adds to other railway safety legislation already under consideration in Congress in the wake of the East Palestine derailment. 

The RAIL Act, introduced in the House by Ohio Representative Bill Johnson on March 17, would require hotbox detectors be placed every 10 miles on railways used to transport hazardous materials. These detectors monitor how hot a train’s wheels are, which when overheated, can cause breakage and result in a derailed train, as was the case in East Palestine. The legislation would also provide grant funding for hazardous material training for first responders. 

The Railway Safety Act of 2023, introduced in the Senate by Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown on March 1, would also require wayside defect detectors – a monitoring system on railroad tracks that includes hotbox detectors – be used for every train carrying hazardous materials. Railway companies would be required to provide state emergency response commissioners with advance notice about what hazardous materials are moving through their communities. 

While the bills are a good starting point, said Junod from the Urban Institute, they don’t go far enough to meet rural communities where they are. The federal funding from these bills would likely be disseminated through grants, which can be a barrier for rural communities who don’t have paid staff to apply for these grants. 

“If [these bills] don't have a kind of rural guarantee, they're gonna face further challenges in accessing these really needed resources,” Junod said. 

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