After a freight train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed a year ago in East Palestine, Ohio, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents and upending life in the town for months, the rail industry pledged to work to become safer, and members of Congress vowed to pass legislation to prevent similar disasters.
No bill was passed. And accidents went up.
Derailments rose at the top five freight railroads in 2023, according to regulatory reports for the first 10 months of the year, the most recent period for which data exists for all five companies.
And there was a steep increase in the mechanical problem — an overheated wheel bearing — that regulators think caused the derailment of the 1.75-mile-long train in East Palestine.
Norfolk Southern, the operator of the train and the owner of the track that runs through the town, was the only railroad among the five to report a decline in accidents in the period.
In response to the accident, members of Congress in March introduced a bipartisan bill aimed at making railroads safer. But crucial parts of the legislation — including a requirement that railroads use more detectors to identify overheated wheel bearings — have faced resistance from rail lobbyists, who contend that they would inhibit the ability of railroads to introduce new practices and technologies to reduce accidents. The bill has yet to be put up for a full vote in the Senate.
“These figures show the railroad industry’s safety standards are getting worse,” said Senator J.D. Vance, Republican of Ohio and a co-sponsor of the bill. “We can reverse the trend by passing the Railway Safety Act immediately.”
Rail companies say that they have taken steps since the disaster to reduce accidents, including using new technology and improving safety training, and that those changes have begun to show results.
In the accident, on Feb. 3 last year, 38 rail cars derailed; 11 of them contained hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride, used to make plastics. Three days after the crash, the authorities, fearing that the five tank cars containing vinyl chloride might explode, released and burned the cars’ contents. The fires created huge smoke plumes over East Palestine, which sits just over the border from Pennsylvania.
A creek that still shows signs of pollution runs from the crash site through the center of East Palestine, where the mayor, Trent Conaway, has offices in a nondescript municipal building that he calls the village hall. In an interview this month, he said the town was “90 to 95 percent back to normal.”
But like many other residents, he said he wanted to be sure that changes were made to hold railway companies accountable.
“I wish the railroad safety act would have been passed,” Mr. Conaway said. “It sort of upsets me. It’s almost like we were forgotten a little bit.” He said his next task that day was to draft an invitation to President Biden to visit the town.
Train traffic through East Palestine resumed just days after the crash. But the area of the derailment still looked like a large cleanup site this month, with truck traffic jamming a main road. On the edge of the site, the Stateline Tavern and a gas station remained closed.
No one died in the accident, there were no injuries and evacuated residents were told they could move back a few days after the crash. In October, the Environmental Protection Agency said East Palestine residents were not in danger from contaminated drinking water, soil or air from the derailment, but some residents remain wary.
“We’re not really going to know the impacts for 10, 15, 20 years, right?” said Jeffrey Elliott, an East Palestine resident whose house is about half a mile from the crash site.
Though rail is far safer than trucking for transporting hazardous materials, the East Palestine disaster stoked fears about the harm a freight train derailment might do in more populated areas.
The accident battered businesses in East Palestine, including a gas station and a liquor store in the center of town that Anna Doss, a local entrepreneur, has run for years. She said gas station revenues were down by about a quarter last year. And her niece, who helped her run the liquor store, left East Palestine, Ms. Doss said, because of the train crash.
“This whole thing has cost me a lot,” she said. “Not just money.”
The accident forced an examination of how the rail industry is regulated and its safety record.
Despite that scrutiny, the five Class 1 freight railroads operating in the United States — Union Pacific, BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern and Canadian National — reported 256 accidents on their main lines last year through October, an 11 percent increase over the same period in 2022, according to data compiled by the Federal Railroad Administration. The five railroads had reported an aggregate decline in accidents in 2021 and 2022.
Derailments, the most common accident, were up 13.5 percent last year, and “obstruction accidents,” a term used to describe a train striking certain objects, and the second-most-common category, rose 21 percent.
The rail administration also compiles accident causes, and this data shows that there were 17 incidents involving overheated wheel bearings in the first 10 months of last year — more than double the six recorded in the same period of 2022 and higher than any full year’s total since 2014.
“We are absolutely, despite the uptick in some numbers in ’23, still by far the safest way to move goods over land, especially hazmat,” Ian Jefferies, chief executive of the Association of American Railroads, a trade group that also sets operating standards for railroads, said in an interview. “And we’ve got to work every day to continue to drive those numbers further down.”
Mr. Jefferies said the railroads had taken several steps after the East Palestine accident to improve safety. Previously, the industry required that railroads stop and remove a rail car if a wheel bearing’s temperature hit 200 degrees Fahrenheit. In July, the association required that action at 170 degrees. (The wheel bearing on the East Palestine train at one point reached 253 degrees, according to a track-side detector.)
BNSF, owned by Warren E. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and the largest U.S. railroad as determined by miles of track, showed a 10 percent increase in accidents in the period. Kendall Kirkham Sloan, a BNSF spokeswoman, said that the company was the safest railroad in the country, based on the federal government’s measures of safety, and that accidents were being reduced by training and technology.
Union Pacific, the second-largest railroad, reported a 32 percent increase in accidents in the period. Kristen South, a company spokeswoman, said that some accidents, like those caused by objects on the track, were beyond a railroad’s control and that the focus should be on “serious” derailments, a category that she said fell 5 percent last year at Union Pacific.
CSX, the third-largest railroad, reported a 31 percent increase in accidents in the 10-month period. Bryan Tucker, a spokesman, said the company’s safety performance had been “challenged” by its hiring of many new employees after the pandemic, but last year it bolstered its training, and that contributed to a steep drop in accidents in the fourth quarter. As a result, CSX on Wednesday reported an accident rate — which measures accidents as a percentage of the distances traveled by trains — that was slightly lower in 2023 than in 2022. (Its total accidents still rose.)
The five railways’ total performance last year would have been worse had it not been for significant improvement at Norfolk Southern, which reported 29 accidents in the first 10 months of 2023 on its main lines, down 37 percent from 46 in the same period of 2022.
In an interview, Alan Shaw, Norfolk Southern’s chief executive, said the company had changed how it assembled trains to try to make them less likely to have accidents. It also introduced new technology and focused on improving its safety culture.
“It is a continual process — there’s no silver bullet,” he said. “It’s a bunch of different initiatives all pulling together.”
On its approach to East Palestine, the train that derailed did not pass an overheated-bearing detector for nearly 20 miles, suggesting that if there had been more detectors, with shorter distances between them, the problem might have been picked up earlier, perhaps averting the derailment.
Norfolk Southern added two detectors near East Palestine, resulting in an average of 11 miles between the detectors, said Connor Spielmaker, a spokesman. Across the busiest parts of its network, Norfolk Southern has added 115 detectors since March, and with more additions it expects the average distance between detectors to fall to around 11 miles from 13.9 miles by the end of this year, he said. On the approach to East Palestine, the company has put into service two of its latest digital inspection portals, which use 38 cameras to capture potential defects on trains as they pass through.
Still, Norfolk Southern had four derailments and an employee fatality last year that are being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board. And it had five incidents involving overheated wheel bearings, the highest number in at least three decades.
Through working with Norfolk Southern, the East Palestine Fire Department has access to a system that immediately tells it what is in rail cars, something it didn’t have when the derailment occurred, said Keith Drabick, the department’s chief.
“You had a hard time because of the amount of fire going on,” he said.
Norfolk Southern has paid derailment-related expenses of East Palestine families, like cleanup and relocation costs, and settled claims with a few businesses. It plans to spend $25 million overhauling the town’s park and the same amount on building a training center for emergency workers in the town.
“They made the mistake. They’re cleaning it up,” Mayor Conaway said. “But it’d be nice if the mistake never happened in the first place.”