The wake of a tragedy is often a time for reflection on policy failures—what could have been done differently to avoid the problem, and to what extent is government the solution? Not surprisingly, after the East Palestine derailment, which caused widespread ecological damage, Americans want assurance that policymakers will prevent a repeat of the incident. But so far, policymakers have wildly missed the mark, offering up ideas that would not have been able to prevent the derailment, while weakening trust in a Department of Transportation (DOT) that has already been encountering repeated failures. Instead of hypothesizing, the DOT should focus on the causes of the derailment for insight as to what policy changes could prevent a future disaster.

The Cause of the Derailment

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released their preliminary report on the cause of the derailment. According to the report, the derailment occurred because an overheated wheel bearing failed (steel loses its structural integrity at high temperatures). To prevent such failures from occurring, railroads voluntarily use devices called “hot box detectors” (HBD) that use infrared detection equipment to monitor the temperatures of a rail car’s axles and bearings. There are approximately 6,000 of these devices in the United States, placed at distances of between 15 and 30 miles apart. The use of HBDs has reduced derailments due to heat stress by 59 percent.

When an HBD detects a bearing that is between 170- and 200-degrees Fahrenheit above ambient temperatures, train crews are advised that a non-critical issue requires a stop and inspection. If the bearing is more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit above ambient temperature, the crews need to stop the train and put the rail car out of service.

The derailed train, 32N, passed three of these HBDs prior to the derailment, all of which seemed to be functioning. When it passed the first HBD, the doomed bearing on car 23 had a temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit above ambient. It passed a second HBD 11 miles later, where the same bearing’s temperature was recorded at 103 degrees Fahrenheit above ambient. Nineteen miles later, it passed a third HBD, where the bearing’s temperature was recorded at 253 degrees Fahrenheit above ambient.

High speeds do not appear to have been a cause for the overheating, as the train was traveling at 47 miles per hour at the time of the derailment, which was below the authorized 50 miles per hour. Positive Train Control systems, which prevent derailment due to speeding, were in effect at the time of the derailment. After receiving the HBD alarm, the train engineer applied dynamic braking to slow the train. Then automatic emergency brake application occurred, indicating that the train crew operated according to what was considered safe, and the emergency brake systems functioned properly.

We will have to wait until the full report from the NTSB and its analysis of the failed bearing, but the incident has some experts puzzled since the in-place safety practices should have prevented the derailment.

Proposed Policy Responses Fail to Align with Preventive Measures

In the wake of any disaster, policy changes should be geared towards preventing a repeat of the incident. If new policy fails to adequately address the cause of an incident, it will result in increased costs without improving outcomes, which in this case are key as they relate to public health and safety. However, the proposed policy changes from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg thus far do not seem to do anything to prevent a repeat of the East Palestine derailment. A brief highlight of some of the proposed policy changes, and the way in which they do not relate to this incident, are described below.

Requiring Electronically Controlled Pneumatic Brakes (ECPB) on trains with more than 20 “High Hazard Flammable Train” (HHFT) Cars

During the Obama administration, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Association (PHMSA) along with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) proposed a regulation to require ECPB technology on trains with more than 20 cars in a row carrying a class 3 flammable liquid or 35 cars total carrying class 3 flammable liquid in the train, but it was never finalized. The Trump administration withdrew consideration of this rule, and Secretary Buttigieg contests that this action led to the derailment.

Although 32N carried 20 HHFT cars, the regulation would not have applied in this case because only three of the rail cars carried class 3 flammable liquids. Vinyl chloride, the most damaging of the pollutants on the train, is transported as a gas and has a flammability classification of 2.1 and is not a class 3 flammable. Furthermore, the emergency braking systems functioned correctly and stopped the train. There is no evidence to suggest that more advanced braking systems would have prevented the incident.

Accelerated Phase-in of New HHFT Rail Cars

Current regulations require a phase out of older, less robust rail cars for transporting flammable liquids, and require all cars by 2029 to be of a newer, more robust design, designated as DOT 117. Secretary Buttigieg wants to expedite the phase in of these newer designs. However, since vinyl chloride is transported as a gas, these regulations do not apply. The rail cars transporting vinyl chloride on 32N were of the type DOT 105, which are pressurized tank cars. DOT 117 are non-pressurized tank cars. Accelerating the phase in of tank cars designed primarily for transporting flammable liquids like gasoline would not have prevented the release of vinyl chloride. 

Minimum Crew Requirements for Trains

There is no evidence to suggest that more crew members would have helped prevent the derailment of 32N, which occurred due to a failed bearing. The automated HDB alerted the crew to stop the train, and the crew performed as expected. Even if the requirement was in place, it would not have applied to this incident because there already were two crew members plus a trainee on board, exceeding the proposed crew requirement of two.

Paid Sick Leave for Rail Workers

Sick leave was a request of rail worker unions before the National Mediation Board released the unions from arbitration in negotiating new union contracts, which led to the near strike that required Congressional intervention to avoid. The popular narrative is simply that rail workers do not get sick days or leave of any kind, and must work through illness, but this is not the case. Like many other employees in America, “sick days” are considered paid time off; in this case, the term is “paid personal leave.” As part of a rail worker’s total compensation, they receive a number of paid personal leave days; paid vacation days; and, depending on the union, some workers have paid sick leave and others receive “supplemental sickness benefits,” which are tax advantaged payments to retirement in lieu of paid leave.

There is no evidence at this time to suggest that an ill worker was responsible for the failure, and the Department of Transportation should wait until the NTSB’s full investigation to determine if a worker’s improper practices was responsible for the bearing failure and whether additional leave would fix the problem.

Phase in Automated Track Inspection without Forgoing Human Inspection

New technology for track inspection uses lasers to measure track width and identify problems, ensuring that the rails are the correct distance apart. Rail operators prefer the new technology to human inspection due to its improved accuracy, but unions oppose it as it would reduce the need for trackwalkers that measure distance between rails. Research has shown, though, that the deployment of newer automated technology has been a benefit to safety, and utilization of automated systems have contributed to rail-defect related derailments falling by 45 percent since 2011.

In the Washington, D.C. area a train was derailed because of a reliance on trackwalker reports that were falsified. In the D.C. instance, one track inspector—a supervisor—argued that rail is “designed to stay still” and thus it did not matter that his reports were false, and although he and nearly half of the system’s trackwalkers were eventually fired, the local transit union opposed the decision. The incident highlighted the fallibility of human inspection and exposed systemic problems with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s human-focused track inspection.

The utilization of newer automated technology improves safety, whereas continuing to rely on human inspection retains points of potential failure.

Proposed Policies that Might have a Benefit

The DOT did propose some policies that may have some benefit, but more information is needed before we can be certain. 

Require Rail Operators to Participate in the FRA’s Whistleblower Protection Program

If an employee noticed a problem with a rail car but did not notify anyone over fear of retaliation, this would be a huge problem. At this point there is no evidence that this occurred, but the East Palestine incident does highlight the stakes involved and it is practical to expect that workers pointing out potential risks should be protected.

Initiate a Safety Inspection Program for Routes Carrying HHFTs

For routes that carry HHFTs, it may make sense to have practices in place that can reduce risks and improve the planned responses should a disaster occur.

Notably Absent: HBD Expansion

The insight from the NTSB preliminary report is that there is only one sure thing that could have prevented the derailment: the presence of an additional HBD between mile posts 69.01 and 49.81. Yet the deployment of additional HBDs is notably absent from the list of recommendations from the Department of Transportation.

The Bottom Line

HBDs have been enormously successful in reducing derailments and improving safety. Further utilization of them would have prevented the East Palestine incident. But such a recommendation is absent from the DOT’s recommendations, in lieu of numerous other proposals focused on HHFTs. Curiously, many of the recommended changes would not apply to the East Palestine incident, which perhaps indicates a poorly formulated policy response and a lack of understanding of the incident.

Furthermore, it is disheartening to see that the East Palestine incident has become a major political touchpoint, with politicians visiting the site weeks after the incident to trade barbs over responsibility. 

To prevent a repeat of the derailment in East Palestine, policymakers should focus on proven solutions to improve rail safety and avoid playing politics.