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The U.S. has been tracking train derailments since 1975, and since then, we’ve averaged about 1704 derailments per year. Most of these aren’t disasters, just annoyances that spill coal, grain, or gravel; and tie up traffic for a while.
But the Ohio derailment may wind up causing long-term damage on the scale of Chornobyl, and since then, people have been paying more attention to derailments in the news.
Let’s take a quick look at what’s happened so far this year:
January 9: In Lake City, South Carolina, a train derailed after striking a car that had been parked on the tracks. The engineer tried to stop but was unable to. However, no one was in the car, so no injuries were reported.
January 19: 98 cars derailed near Trinway, Ohio. Only one car out of the 98 was loaded, and no injuries were reported. However, no causes have been reported yet.
January 21: Multiple cars derail near Loris, South Carolina, spilling gravel and closing roads. No injuries were reported.
February 3: A wheel bearing overheated, causing cars to derail in East Palestine, Ohio. Five of those cars were carrying vinyl chloride, and one of those cars began to overheat, leading authorities to fear an explosion. In response, they lit the spilled chemicals on fire, poisoning the surrounding area.
February 4: One of the trains on Philadelphia’s Septa system derailed because of a cracked rail; the train was able to safely stop and unload its passengers. No injuries were reported.
February 13: 21 freight cars derailed near Splendora, Texas, after a truck drove onto the tracks. Several hundred gallons of diesel fuel were spilled, but no other chemicals being transported leaked. The truck driver was killed.
February 13: A train derailed near Enoree, South Carolina. No injuries have been reported, but the investigation is still ongoing.
February 16: A train derailed near Belle Ville, Michigan. One car containing liquid chlorine derailed, but the tank stayed intact. No injuries, or potential causes, have been reported.
February 19: In Delphos, Ohio, a train derailed, knocking over poles and shutting down several intersections. No hazardous materials were being transported, and no injuries were reported.
This list is by no means exhaustive; it’s just a sample of what’s happened so far in 2023.
What do we make of these accidents?
Is the number of crashes increasing? Who’s to blame? Are the crashes the result of an evil plot, or corporate cost-cutting, or is there some as-of-yet unmentioned factor here? How concerned should we be regarding future incidents?
Rail executives point to the number of incidents per year holding constant over time, but if you look at how much bigger trains have gotten over the past ten years, the rate of accidents per track mile has increased by about 10%. So yes, safety incidents are increasing.
The rail company responsible for the accident in Ohio, Norfolk Southern, saw an increase of 82% in safety incidents per track mile since 2013. They’ve shed about one-third of their workforce in the past ten years, keeping costs down and investors happy. But the people living in the communities their trains go through? Not so much.
Personally, I wouldn’t rule out some kind of plot to mess with the American infrastructure, but there’s not much evidence of that yet. A peculiar but little-mentioned detail did occur in Ohio. A blasting cap was found about 1.4 miles away from the crash. The landowner, Jerry Corbin, found his yard full of ash along with the blasting cap; the EPA didn’t know what to make of it. They took samples and haven’t told him anything else. We don’t have answers there.
But we do have a great deal of evidence that points toward corporate cost-cutting.
Who remembers those rail workers threatening to strike a few months ago, just before the holidays?
Most news coverage about the strike focused on Biden signing a law making it illegal for rail workers to strike. Media claimed that in exchange for declaring strikes illegal, rail workers were getting a big pay raise.
However, listening to a roundtable interview with rail workers themselves, the picture gets a little more complicated. Their complaints had less to do with pay and more to do with working conditions. They may have gotten a pay raise, but not the sick days they had actually been looking for.
Workers discussed the toxic relationship between labor and management, and the increased suicide rate due to the stressful nature of the job. They talked about the huge push toward replacing human workers with technology that just isn’t ready yet. Also mentioned was how trains that used to have five people manning them now have two. The trains keep getting longer, which means they are physically more difficult to monitor. 70% of the union members are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They’re demoralized and exhausted.
One of the controversial issues within the rail industry has been the implementation of Precision Scheduled Railroading, which claims to streamline service while also cutting costs Rail companies have been laying off workers since 2015 , even though the amount of goods transported by rail continued to increase through 2018.
PSR helps rail companies cut overhead costs, but it allows for less time to physically inspect cars. Rail companies point to advanced monitoring technology within the cars; union members respond that the excessive length of some trains makes it difficult to hear alarms going off, and difficult to communicate with their coworkers. The best monitoring tech in the world doesn’t mean anything if you physically can’t get to the problem area in time.
And the train that derailed in Ohio was huge. At 150 cars, it was nearly two miles long. As pointed out by Senators Marco Rubio and J.D. Vance in their letter to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, this massive train was manned by only one engineer, one conductor, and one conductor-in-training
I’m amazed that two Republican Senators are complaining about corporate cost-cutting, though questions definitely need to be asked here. But it’s more evidence that times are changing.
There’s one other factor in some industrial accidents.
And I think there may be another factor at play, another change Americans will have to deal with in the upcoming years. It caught my eye in the report, not of a train derailment, but of a truck accident in Arizona.
On February 14, a truck carrying nitric acid drifted off I-10 in Arizona. The vehicle crashed and the driver was found dead in the cab. No cause of death has been confirmed, though officials said it didn’t look like he had been speeding, and there was no evidence of substance abuse. This 54-year old truck driver seemingly just died.
Where else have we heard about people dying suddenly? It seems to happen more frequently than it did five years ago. . .
Anything that impacts workers’ health is going to impact the safety of those around them. This was why, pre-Covid, airline pilots weren’t allowed to take Emergency Use Authorized substances. Pilots’ jobs were considered too sensitive to risk some kind of unknown negative reaction that could potentially occur with relatively untested substances. Anyone transporting hazardous substances should likewise have their health carefully safeguarded. But now, the powers that be don’t really seem to care.
Rail workers predicted this. Nobody listened.
The rail workers in the above-mentioned roundtable predicted an increase in hazardous material spills back in December 2022. Career rail worker Matthew Parker stated, “. . . a major derailment with hazmat and stuff being released in the community. How that situation gets mitigated depends on the professionalism of each and every one of us who are out there working on the railroad. . . .And what we just got shown by this administration and Congress and everybody else is that they don’t really value us.”
I agree with Mr. Parker; I don’t think the people in power value anything other than their own lifestyles. These people don’t live near train tracks, interstates, or industrial facilities; they don’t care about upticks in accidents and the communities they impact.
The government response has been less than inspiring.
I have to admit, while I do live near train tracks and industrial facilities, I’m less scared of the facilities themselves than of the government’s response in case of an incident.
The photos of what’s happened in Ohio are absolutely shocking. That toxic plume could be seen from space. And yet FEMA turned down requests for federal help for weeks. Officials refuse to call it a disaster.
In case we needed any more reason to distrust anyone trotting out The Science, (I say this as someone with a science degree), last week Ohio Governor DeWine announced, “The science says East Palestine is safe.”
Seriously?? Watch J.D. Vance’s video of one of the creeks in East Palestine. It’s so gross. The EPA says the air and water here are safe? Okay, you take a drink first, EPA.
I find this particularly offensive because the people calling the shots about air and water safety are part of the professional class that won’t let their own children consume high fructose corn syrup or Red 40. But if it’s a low-income community, anything goes. I didn’t have a ton of trust in the so-called expert class anyway. The situation in Ohio has only made me more cynical.
I am especially sympathetic toward Jerry Corbin, the man who found the blasting cap in his yard. He’s a longtime gardener and wants answers from the EPA about whether or not he can safely eat his own produce. Aren’t we all supposed to be eating local organic stuff? Why is the government not giving this man answers so he can safely do that?
Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a political fix to this situation. I agree with the rail workers; I think there has been enough structural cost-cutting that we are going to start seeing more accidents across industries. There was an explosion at a factory in Bedford, Ohio just this week though as of right now officials haven’t determined a cause.
The younger generation of skilled, trained maintenance workers simply isn’t there. This is a problem across industries, one that can’t be fixed overnight or even over an election cycle. There has been a push to get younger generations into high-tech jobs, assuming our economy will be completely different, when in reality we’re just not there yet. All kinds of skilled maintenance workers are still going to be needed for a while. But there just hasn’t been enough nurturing of relatively younger people in those fields to keep Americans in the lifestyle to which we’ve been accustomed.
The giant medical experiment in which the majority of Americans have been forced to participate adds a chaotic element to all of this; I see no reason to think anything will improve, any time soon.
All these incidents point to what Fabian called Thirdworldization. Our infrastructure is falling apart, though our political class is mostly insulated from its effects, and therefore unmotivated to make any significant changes.
I think it’s worth reading Fabian’s original article, if you haven’t already, or revisiting it if you have. Deteriorating infrastructure is something we have very limited control over; Fabian’s article may help you organize your thoughts about what you can control in this case of a slow-burning SHTF scenario.
What are your thoughts on the derailment?
It’s also important to stay positive even as the lifestyle most of us are used to falls apart. If you’re in a position to help others, do it. You’ll be helping them, but also yourself. Nurture your friend and family relationships. Find sources of joy and fulfillment that don’t depend on a cushy lifestyle. Regardless of what happens in your area, you’ll be happier in the long run.
The derailment in Ohio has brought attention to our crumbling infrastructure, safety shortcuts, and corporate greed that puts lives and the environment at risk.
What are your thoughts about the derailment in Ohio? Do you have any theories? What do you believe is causing all the accidents? Are you making any changes to keep yourself safe?
Share your thoughts in the comments section.
About Marie Hawthorne
A lover of novels and cultivator of superb apple pie recipes, Marie spends her free time writing about the world around her.