Train Wrecks and Regulations!

Creator: Gene J. Puskar | Credit: AP
Copyright: Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Greetings and Salutations…

I was poking around on the Social Media site Quora, and ran across an interesting question. It proved to be interesting enough that I thought I would add an essay here discussing it.

The Post’s article is very carefully written. Having read through it, I have to disagree with their evaluation that the regulation changes by the #45 administration would not have had an effect on the derailment. The Post carefully states that none of the changes they found “CAUSED” the derailment. Their wording seems to me to be saying that they are looking for a single cause for the disaster. I look at the fact checking in the article, and I agree that there was not ONE cause of the accident. However, I see several issues that, together, did cause the accident.

In reading the article, though, I see how it does point up some issues that the general, Republican opposition to regulation HAVE caused. Some of these are:

  • The definition of a “toxic train” is lacking merit. It requires, far more tankers of the chemicals to be in the train before extra safety precautions would kick in. I am of the opinion that if there are ANY tankers carrying toxic or flammable materials in the train, it should kick in the stringent regulations. Right now, though, the regulations define ” a “high-hazard flammable unit train” (HHFUT) as a train comprised of 70 or more loaded tank cars containing Class 3 flammable liquids traveling speeds at greater than 30 mph.” from THIS Federal document. The New Palestine train, by the way, had 20 tankers filled with flammable liquids, and was traveling at a speed of 47 MPH.
  • This article does not address the problem, but from THIS article there were three heat sensors along the 30 mile stretch of track before the derailment. As the article shows, each one showed what should have been a worrisome increase in bearing temperature. It looks to me that there are two problems here. First off, putting sensors up to 20 miles apart seems unwise, considering how rapidly a failing bearing can destroy itself. Perhaps units every five miles would be a more sane option. Secondly, the second sensor showed a distinct upwards trend in bearing temperature. This should have triggered concerns for the crew. In addition, the temperature that did trigger the warning, at the third sensor, was far too high. By that point in time, the bearing was self-destructing, and friction was increasing rapidly… The NTSB has released a preliminary report, HERE, that discusses aspects of the derailment, too.

Creator: Gene J. Puskar | Credit: AP
Copyright: Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
  • The presence of the Ethylene oxide is discounted in the article, because it is not directly connected to the derailment. However, looking at the disaster a whole, it magnified the damage done and long-term effects by an order of magnitude, at least. As such, the presence of the toxic, flammable mixture should not be ignored. Of course, the Governor’s decision to set the spilled chemical on fire should be scrutinized tool. Covering the area with clouds of rather toxic smoke seems like a bad idea to me.
  • The Safety Audits of routes used for carrying hazardous chemicals were halted in the #45 administration. This is not listed as a proximate cause of the derailment, but, heavily traveled routes take a huge pounding constantly, and, it only takes one section of uninspected railway to trigger an event like this.
  • The article reports the previous administration had changed the allowed time for a train to sit, without line pressure, from four hours to 24 hours. This may or may not have been a factor in the derailment. Apparently Canada regulations allow a 24 hour delay, and, in cases were the train car is being worked on, that can extend to 80 hours. However, this train did have a purely pneumatic braking system, which is less safe than the Electronic system being proposed. For example, the New Palestine train was over 9000 feet long – with 149 cars in it. When the engineer applied the brakes on that train, it took upwards of
  • Because of the poor regulations dealing with the amount of toxic chemicals allowed in a train, there were no electronic brakes in use. IF this regulation change had not happened, there would likely have been such brakes on much of the train…which would have made a huge difference in the derailment. This change is especially important with the rather longer trains rolling today. This Article talks about how pneumatic brakes work on trains, and is useful to read. In short, for a train as long as the New Palestine train, it could take nearly 30 seconds for the last car in the train to start applying its brakes. The car with the bad bearing was the 23d car, which means that if it derailed due to bearing failure, there would be the weight of over 100 fully loaded cars pushing on it,and getting dragged off the track with it. Even the fact that there was a second engine module part way down the train that would have provided braking, that is still a LOT of weight trying to push the cars ahead down the track.
  • There is one more issue that has been in the news recently, but was not addressed in any of the sources I have linked to. That is the issue of how the railroad companies treat their employees. The companies tend to require lengthy shifts without respite from their workers, and, refuse to give them, for example paid sick days. This can cause fatigue issues, and, folks coming in to work when they are ill. Working the railroad is demanding, hard work, and rather dangerous, still. So, any issues that impact the ability of the workers to be at the top of their game can cause pretty nasty problems. As it is early times yet, the physical state of the engineer and other workers on the train has not been released. However, I will say that from all I have read, they did perform well in this emergency, following the protocols on how to deal with the problem.

My conclusion is that, while the facts in the article are correct, as far as they go, I do not agree with the conclusions that the article comes to. Deregulation is never a good thing for citizens, and this collection of issues (which could have been dealt with by either proper regulations, or the enforcement of existing regulations), came together to create the disaster that is impacting New Palestine.

So, what could be done to cut down on the chances of this happening again?

  1. The railroad companies should be required to start a program to retrofit all rolling stock with the electronic braking system.
  2. The requirements for defining a Hazardous transport train should, as I noted above, be tightened up to define ANY train with even one car transporting flammable/hazardous chemicals as a Hazardous Transport.
  3. the criteria for warning for a failing bearing should be upgraded. Instead of a simple temperature measurement, the temperature trend should be included in the evaluation. If several sensors in a row show increasing temperatures, an alarm should sound, even if the overall temperature has not reached the currently defined danger point.
  4. There should be requirements for many more sensors for detecting overheating bearings. There should be a lot more of them spaced much closer together.
  5. The workers should have their work environment changed to be less stressful, and exhausting, and, they should have the flexibility to deal with physical issues without being required to drag into work.

The railroads can certainly afford some or all of these changes. For example, last year (2022), their profits were $700 billion. This is, by half a billion dollars a record profit for them. Did they spend any of that money on fixing any of the issues I have talked about above? No, they did not. They spent a chunk of it on stock buy backs, thereby enriching their stockholders.

This entry was posted in Ethics, General Thoughts, Humanity, Politics, Questionable decisions, Ruminations, Snake Oil and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Train Wrecks and Regulations!

  1. Don Mooradian says:

    Thank you for writing this. As always, very well thought out. 

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