Americans have been thinking about the safety of our railroads a lot in recent days, and with good reason.
On Valentine’s Day a Metro-North train made a slow speed crash into the protective rail bumper at the end of the line in New Canaan. The train was unoccupied (aside from its crew, one of whom was slightly injured) and the train derailed, causing minor damage.
The location has seen similar derailments in the past but there’s no use speculating on what happened, or why, pending a formal inquiry. But if this had happened in the evening rush hour when the train would have been crowded with commuters, the outcome could have been different.
In the Fairfield derailment and crash ten years ago, many of those injured were out of their seats, standing in the vestibules and ready to detrain at the next stop. When the crash happened, they were tossed like rag dolls. The lesson there: remain seated.
The New Canaan branch line dates from the 1860s and is due for work. In fact the 8-mile-long line will reportedly be completely shut down for several weeks in a renovation planned long before the recent derailment. While conductors on the branch are warning passengers about this, there is no information forthcoming about this work from Metro-North or CDOT as to when or why.
Of course, none of this comes close to what happened Feb. 3 when a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The 150-car-train was carrying all manner of freight, most of it not risky.
But 11 of the 36 cars that derailed were very dangerous, including five transporting vinyl chloride gas, under pressure as a liquid. Other cars were carrying ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate and isobutylene. The EPA says many of those are dangerous and potentially carcinogenic.
To avoid even more perilous explosions, the authorities decided to burn off the gas in a “controlled explosion.” The result was loud and perfect for prime-time TV. But days later the real problems began.
Neighbors reported 3,500 dead fish in their rivers while many folks suffered from headaches and nausea. Wells are being tested but bottled water seems in everyone’s future… if they decide to stay.
Initial reports say this accident may have been caused by an overheated axle on one of the 150 railcars. The NTSB will investigate and, in a few months, give us a more definitive answer.
There are over 1,700 derailments in the U.S. each year, most of them non-lethal. For Connecticut residents the good news is this won’t happen here, at least not to this extent. Why? Because we have virtually no rail freight in this state.
The bad news? Those chemicals are traveling on our highways, albeit in smaller truck-sized loads, but they are no less likely to cause explosions or damage if they’re involved in an accident. Those chemicals are what drive our industries. They need to get shipped.
Meantime we keep talking about wanting to take trucks off our interstates and put them on freight trains. But be careful what you wish for.