Washington lawmakers are scrutinizing the freight rail industry as a string of derailments unfold in 2023.
In the months since a Norfolk Southern train derailment devastated the town of East Palestine, Ohio, more freight cars went careening from their tracks in several parts of the country.
“Even one incident can have a dramatic impact on a community,” Ian Jefferies, CEO at the American Association of Railroads, said to CNBC in an interview. Jefferies said derailments overall were on the decline, citing Federal Rail Administration data. A small increase in reported derailments, however, was registered between 2020 and 2022.
Others within the industry say accidents have become more difficult to avoid as railroad companies pursue more demanding business plans. “Trains got heavier and longer,” said Mark Burrows, a former locomotive engineer. “It’s a lot to contend with.”
Existing government research is inconclusive in regards to how these strategies affect public safety. But some areas deserve further study, experts say.
“One of the concerns that we heard was that railroads may have compensated for the reduction in mechanical staff by having other types of staff like conductors, do those pre-departure checks,” said Elizabeth Repko, director of infrastructure policy at the U.S. Government Accountability Office. “They may be missing some things and that could impact safety.”
Some of these concerns may have come to life in the now-infamous scene at East Palestine, Ohio. The National Transportation Safety Board, which released preliminary findings in February, is conducting a full investigation of the crash.
“This was 100% preventable,” said Jennifer Homendy, chair of the NTSB, at a February press conference focused on the preliminary report.
Watch the video above to learn more about the freight rail industry and what might be leading to the current rash of train derailments in the U.S.