Train Safety, Then and Now

The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio had me pulling on so many different threads this week, there’s no way I can weave them all back into a coherent whole, so I’m going to divide the resulting article into two parts to give me more time to track down some missing information.

As to why I’m writing about train safety on an island that barely has trains anymore, I think the easy answer is that it interests me (did I mention I once worked for VIA Rail?). And we do have a sort of shadow railway here—the one Albert Barbusci and Barry Sheehy, our port promoters (remember them?), promised would be up and running by now, carrying thousands of containers filled with god knows what from our port to points west on the daily.

Aerial view of train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, 4 Feb 2023

East Palestine train derailment, 4 February 2023. (Source: NTSB)

But maybe a better reason is that this story shows what happens when, as a former Transport Safety Board of Canada investigator put it five years after the Lac-Mégantic disaster, “the rail industry still has more power than the federal regulator.”

Lac-Mégantic is what came to mind for me immediately watching events in Ohio. I thought “Didn’t we take steps to prevent accidents like this after a Québec town center was incinerated?” And the answer, you’ll see, is “sort of.”

I’m also giving you fair warning that these articles will be more like quilts than tapestries, I really don’t have time to weave things together nicely, which I will now illustrate by beginning with the answer to probably the least important question that occurred to me following the accident in East Palestine, Ohio, namely:


Why is it called East Palestine?

East Palestine [rhymes with “Springsteen”], Ohio was founded in 1828 as Mechanicsburg and renamed East Palestine for the Biblical region of Palestine in 1875 when it was  incorporated as a village. East Palestine became a city in 1920 but reverted to village status in 2011 due to declining population. Today, it has a population of roughly 4,800.

East Palestine is located in Columbiana County, Ohio, about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and about 21 miles south of Youngstown, Ohio.

It was named East Palestine because there was already a Palestine, Ohio which is located on the other side of the state:

Maps showing East Palestine and Palestine, Ohio

Source: 636Buster, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Biblical place names are common in North America—think, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania—and can generally be traced to 19th century Christian settlers. Here in Nova Scotia, for example, we have two New Canaans, an Enon, two Goshens, a Hebron and a Salem (not to mention a New Salem, a North Salem and a Salem Road).


What happened in East Palestine?

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued an update on its investigation of the East Palestine derailment on Tuesday which states:

On Feb. 3, at approximately 8:54 p.m., local time, eastbound Norfolk Southern Railway, general merchandise freight train 32N, derailed on main track 1 in East Palestine, Ohio. As a result of the derailment, 38 rail cars derailed and a fire ensued which damaged an additional 12 cars. There were 20 total hazardous material cars in the train consist—11 of which derailed. A list of what the derailed rail cars were carrying is available online. There were no reported fatalities or injuries…

The train consisted of 150 cars pulled by three locomotives and manned by three people. As media reports have detailed, five of the derailed cars were carrying vinyl-chloride, a flammable chemical used in the manufacture of credit cards and PVC pipe. That list mentioned above, which was supplied to the NTSB by Norfolk Southern and released to the public on February 12, revealed four additional hazardous chemicals carried by cars involved in the derailment—ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene and butyl acrylate. The rail operator said the cars carrying the butyl acrylate and the ethylhexyl acrylate were breached and either all or some of the chemicals released during the crash, the status of the car carrying ethylene glycol monobutyl ether was “unknown,” and the isobutylene car was burned but not breached.

TRAIN 32N - EAST PALESTINE - derail list NS

On February 5, Norfolk Southern reported that during the monitoring of the derailed cars “it was found that the pressure relief devices on some of the cars had stopped working.” If not addressed, as Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s office explained, the cars could “potentially explode, causing deadly disbursement of shrapnel and toxic fumes.” So, Norfolk Southern, “in coordination among all agencies and stakeholders,” put together a plan to manually vent the cars:

The contents will be drained in a controlled fashion. To protect the environment, we have prepared pits and embankments to drain the material into which will then be remediated. When it is safe to do so, the manual release of the pressure will be via a controlled breach of several rail cars, and under the supervision of experts and first responders. This will be loud and visible. Some of the material will burn off as it drains for a short number of hours.

Before this process began, Governor DeWine ordered evacuations within a one by two-mile area of the derailment site. According to the AP, about half the town’s 4,800 residents were warned to leave. The Governor of nearby Pennsylvania, Josh Shapiro, also urged residents within a one-mile radius of East Palestine to leave their homes.

The controlled breach of the railcars, which took place on February 6, released a massive plume of black smoke over East Palestine.

Two days later, on February 8, residents were told it was safe to return to their homes, which many were hesitant to do, given that thousands of fish had been discovered dead in a nearby stream, some residents had reported dead chickens and people were experiencing symptoms like headaches, nausea, vomiting and skin irritation.

NBC reported on Tuesday that the federal Enviromental Protection Agency (EPA) was testing for traces of vinyl-chloride in people’s homes, but they spoke to Andrew Whelton, a professor of environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University, who said it was possible the burn “created additional compounds the EPA might not be testing for.”

“When they combusted the materials, they created other chemicals. The question is what did they create?” he said.

Whelton added that some of the other chemicals the train carried could also cause headaches, nausea, vomiting or skin irritation.

Moreover, NBC notes that the EPA said Friday in a letter to Norfolk Southern that chemicals carried on the train “continue to be released to the air, surface soils, and surface waters.”


What caused it?

I mean, what was the immediate cause of the derailment (if Lac-Mégantic taught us anything, it’s that a disaster like this has multiple causes, but more about that in a moment). According to that February 14 update:

NTSB investigators have identified and examined the rail car that initiated the derailment. Surveillance video from a residence showed what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment. The wheelset from the suspected railcar has been collected as evidence for metallurgical examination. The suspected overheated wheel bearing has been collected and will be examined by engineers from the NTSB Materials Laboratory in Washington, D.C.

Michael Graham, an NTSB board member, told an on-site press conference that a “wayside defect detector” had alerted the crew to the problem and the “emergency brake application was initiated” shortly before the derailment.

Investigators will examine the wheelset, the vinyl-chloride tank car top fittings (including the relief valves), the locomotive event recorder data, forward- and inward-facing image recording data and wayside defect detector data. They will also consider documentation and conduct interviews.  A preliminary report is expected in two weeks but the full investigation could take 18 to 24 months.


Weren’t things supposed to be safer after Lac-Mégantic?

Lac-Mégantic was just the deadliest of a series of train accidents that finally pushed the governments of both the US and Canada to tighten regulations governing the transport of hazardous materials.

As Justin Mikulka explained in 2018 in DeSmog:

An important point to keep in mind here is that all of the major oil-by-rail carriers (BNSF, CSX, CN, CP) move oil from both the U.S. and Canada, which leads to something known as harmonization in the regulations. Because the trains couldn’t easily cross the border if the rules were different in each country, the regulatory agencies in both must work together to ensure harmonization.

Prior to Lac-Mégantic there had been “dozens of accidents” involving  “trains hauling oil and ethanol in the U.S. and Canada” including “fiery crashes and fuel spills in Alabama, Oregon, Montana, Virginia, West Virginia, North Dakota, Illinois and elsewhere” (“elsewhere” including Paulsboro, New Jersey where a a 2012 derailment resulted in the leak of 20,000 gallons of vinyl-chloride, the same chemical involved in the East Palestine crash.)

Photo showing damaged train cars, Lac-Megantic, July 2013

Lac-Megantic disaster. (CBC Photo)

But the accident that destroyed the town center of Lac-Mégantic and killed 47 people in July 2013 was the worst. A 72-car Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA) train carrying 7.7 million liters of North Dakota Bakken shale oil to the Irving refinery in New Brunswick was left unattended and rolled into the Québec town where it derailed, caught fire and exploded.

In response to this string of accidents, as The Lever reported:

..the Obama administration in 2014 proposed improving safety regulations for trains carrying petroleum and other hazardous materials. However, after industry pressure, the final measure ended up narrowly focused on the transport of crude oil and exempting trains carrying many other combustible materials, including the chemical involved in [the East Palestine] disaster.

In 2015, the US and Canada developed “a harmonized set of tank-car regulations that aim to make transporting crude by rail a safer endeavour,” as the Financial Post reported. The regulations:

…called for the development of a stronger tank car, dubbed the TC-117. It will include a thicker shell, a thermal jacket to insulate against fire, a full-head shield to protect the ends of the tank car from puncture and better-protected valves. The older cars will be phased out in stages, with the entire fleet replaced or retrofitted within a decade.

More about those TC-117s next week, for now, I want to focus on another line from that 2015 FP article:

One aspect of the new regulations that is not widely supported is a U.S. requirement that all trains carrying a large quantity of flammable liquid have an enhanced system of electronically controlled pneumatic brakes. (Canada also plans to update its braking rules but has not yet done so.)


So, did the rail operators install ECP?

Although not “widely supported” by industry, the Obama administration introduced the requirement that by 2021, all trains transporting “flammable liquids” should be equipped with electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes.

The US  Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), according to this 2010 Rail Insider article, had been championing ECP technology for years and the railways testing the brakes at this time—including Northern Suffolk and Canadian Pacific (CP)—were generally positive about their benefits, which the reporter described this way:

The brakes issue electronic signals to simultaneously apply and release brakes throughout the length of a train instead of each car applying brakes individually as air pressure moves from car to car. As a result, the technology provides benefits such as shorter stopping distances, improved train handling, and less brake shoe and wheel wear.

But the rail operators were also clear that they did not expect to install such systems widely any time soon because they were too expensive—and because they were already facing big capital outlays to install another braking technology known as positive train control (PTC).

At the risk of getting lost in the weeds, I have to quote Mikulka on the subject of PTC. Remember, in 2010, the vice president of safety, training and operations of the BNSF Railway, one of the largest freight railways in the US, was using the cost of PTC as an argument against installing electronically-controlled pneumatic brakes. But it turns out the railways never actually implemented PTC technology. Writes Mikulka:

The rail industry resisted moving forward with PTC for almost 40 years until 2008 when Congress mandated that rail companies install PTC on all trains, passenger and freight, by 2015. Despite the congressional mandate, the industry refused to cooperate.

Instead, the rail industry threatened to shut down the U.S. economy if required to fulfill the legislative requirement. In response, Congress granted the industry a three-year extension. As the third year of that extension winds down, the largest oil-by-rail company, BNSF, has asked for another two year extension.

And in 2017, the industry also killed the requirement for ECP.  Donald Trump’s administration, under intense pressure from the railroad industry which had donated $6 million to Republican campaigns, rescinded the requirement for ECP, on the grounds that the benefits would not outweigh the costs—a conclusion the AP reported  had been based on a flawed analysis that “omitted up to $117 million in estimated future damages from train derailments that could be avoided by using electronic brakes.”

But the point Mikulka makes in that article I’ve been quoting (an article that, honestly, covers a lot of the ground I thought I would cover this week) is that even the simplest of precautions recommended after Lac-Mégantic—placing ramps or locks in front of trains to prevent them from rolling—haven’t been widely implemented because ” starting and stopping trains with these safety devices in place takes longer, and because time is money in the rail industry, companies generally don’t use them.”


Canadian Pacific

I am not seguing very smoothly into this next section, although I think it’s fair to say that going from discussing rail industry influence on regulators to discussing Canadian Pacific is not a huge leap. (Neither is going from discussing Norfolk Southern to discussing CP—CP attempted a hostile takeover of NS which it abandoned in 2016.)

I noted above that in 2010, CP was one of the large North American rail operators testing ECP brakes, but as Bruce Campbell (who has, literally, written the book on Lac-Mégantic) explained in the Toronto Star in 2022, CP was at the same time pressuring government not to impose additional safety regulations.

Campbell’s article was about CP’s refusal to accept any responsibility for the Lac-Mégantic disaster, although, as he explains:

Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) was contracted by Irving to transport the cargo. Since it no longer had a line that went all the way to the Atlantic coast [having sold it off in the 1990s], it arranged for Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA) to transport the oil from Montreal through Lac-Mégantic toward Saint John. It was more profitable for CP to engage MMA, rather than use CN Rail’s much safer route.

CP was named along with a number of other defendants in a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of the victims’ families. In 2015, about 25 of these defendants agreed to settle for $460 million with CP as “the lone holdout.” The occasion of Campbell’s article was the beginning of CP’s civil trial (a Québec Superior Court judge would ultimately find that the actions the railway company was accused of were not the “direct, immediate and logical cause of the damages” suffered by the victims of the tragedy.)

Bill Ackman

Bill Ackman (Source: Yahoo Finance)

What is also notable about CP during this period is that in 2011, Bill Ackman, the US “activist” investor behind Pershing Square Capital Management, began buying into the company. As this Harvard Law paper on the case put it:

Pershing Square began purchasing shares of CP on September 23, 2011. They filed a 13D form on October 28th showing a stock holding of 12.2%; by December 12, 2011, their holding had reached 14.2% of CP voting shares, thus making Pershing Square the largest shareholder of the company.

On February 6, 2012, Ackman, with Hunter S. Harrison (retired CEO of CN—direct competitor of CP and leader in efficiency among Class 1 North American railways—and his candidate for CEO of CP) by his side, made a fact-based presentation about the shortcomings and failings of the CP board and management. Harrison and Ackman stated that their goal for CP was to achieve an operating ratio of 65 for 2015 (down from 81.3 in 2011—the lower the ratio, the better the performance).

The board fought back, giving Ackman the chance to do his favorite thing (I read a lot about Ackman back in my days as a business reporter): write a “scathing” letter about them to shareholders claiming they were leaving money on the table and should be replaced by Ackman’s slate of candidates. Ackman won and Hunter Harrison became CEO of CP. (If you have a strong stomach, you can read this excerpt from Harrison’s biography, I couldn’t make it past the three horse farms and the home in the “glitzy” Florida enclave “where the Gates, Bloombergs, Spielbergs, and Springsteens nest.”)

Harrison’s mandate was to deliver for shareholders and deliver he did: when Ackman sold his CP stake in 2016, he made $2.6 billion.

Harrison, then, was heading CP at the time of the Lac-Mégantic disaster, which happened, he told the Globe and Mail in 2014:

“…because of one person’s behaviour, if I read the file right. An individual did not set the brakes. And I think that we have overreacted and looked at a thousand different things about what we want to do with [regulations]. And you’re not going to write [regulations] that are going to stop behaviour.”

I also read the “file,” meaning the Transport Safety Board (TSB) report on the Lac-Mégantic crash, and I do not think it said that “one person’s behaviour” caused that accident. Harrison must have missed this chart:

Transport Safety Board chart showing causes of Lac-Megantic derailment.

Source: TSB report on Lac-Megantic

Oh, who am I kidding—Harrison was paid good money by Pershing Capital to miss that chart. (In 2018, a Québec jury acquitted three former MMA employees, including the engineer, of criminal negligence in relation to the accident.)


Is there anything else to say this week?

I have a few final points I want to make about CP and then I’m going to end abruptly.

The first is that after Lac-Mégantic, MMA, which wasn’t carrying enough insurance to settle the claims against it, declared bankruptcy and in 2014,  its assets were purchased by Fortress Investment through its rather cynically named subsidiary, Railroad Acquisition Holdings (RAH).

RAH established the Central Maine & Quebec Railway to operate the route and in March 2014, according to L’écho de Frontenac, John E. Giles of RAH:

…drove the length of the line, visiting communities and industries served by the railway and inspecting the condition of tracks and installations. He estimated a $10–20 million investment would be needed over three years to repair the rail line, then in poor condition and not safe for the transport of oil or dangerous goods.

CM&Q apparently did put money into rehabilitating the track and while it began moving hazardous materials through Lac-Mégantic in 2014, it said it would not handle crude oil through the town in 2016 “out of respect for the residents.” (How too kind of them.)

In 2018, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau announced that the feds and the Province of Québec would jointly fund a rail bypass to avoid the necessity of routing crude oil or any other hazardous products through the town.

In 2020, CP bought the CM&Q railway (which it had sold off in the 1990s) from Fortress.

Throughout 2021, the feds negotiated with landowners around Lac-Mégantic many of whom did not want to sell. Bruce Campbell says construction of the bypass has been “repeatedly delayed, largely due to CP’s demand for route changes.”

These changes have been controversial, causing the adjoining towns of Nantes and Frontenac to withdraw their support for the project. The local citizens coalition has also withdrawn its support for the bypass. Its opposition, reinforced by risks identified by a 2020 Transportation Safety Board advisory, stems from the fact that CP wants to run trains that are twice as long, heavier, faster and pass dangerously close to the Tafisa particle board factory in the Lac-Mégantic industrial park, which stores mountains of sawdust that a derailment could easily ignite.

Yesterday (literally, yesterday), the federal government announced it would expropriate the land in question (could the disaster in East Palestine have something to do with the timing of this announcement?)

And in case you’re wondering what Bill Ackman is up to, he started buying back into CP last year.