It’s happened again: A freight train has derailed, this time operated by Montana Rail Link, sending 25 cars tumbling into the Clark Fork River Sunday, ABC reports. This derailment is just the latest in what seems to be a country-wide epidemic of out-of-control trains. According to new reporting, it’s a disease with a very clear and familiar cause: corporate greed.
ProPublica just published an extensive report on what railroad workers spent last year warning us about: Companies are putting profits ahead of worker and community safety by running larger and larger trains with skeleton crews, all to maximize profits for shareholders.
Train companies are stacking up heavy train cars that measure as much as 3 miles long. This practice has lead to record profits for the companies, but also major — and avoidable — accidents that affect communities for years afterwards.
The ProPublica story does a great job of showing the human element of these disasters. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the more recent derailments:
In June 2019 [...] a 2.2-mile-long Union Pacific train derailed in Nevada. It was so long and the terrain so mountainous that at times sections of the train climbed uphill while other sections climbed downhill, which made driving it a nightmare. Ultimately the engineer couldn’t manage it, and the train lifted a car up and dropped it on the ground. Twenty-seven cars followed.
In July, a 2.5-mile-long Union Pacific train derailed for the same reasons elsewhere in Nevada.
In August, a 1.6-mile-long Union Pacific train going 48 miles an hour derailed in Texas. The company ran computer simulations after the crash and concluded it never should have been operating the long train at that speed at that spot on the tracks.
In September, Union Pacific crashed yet another long train. It was 1.5 miles long and broke in two in Illinois. Half of the train rolled out of control away from the other half. It then slowed, stopped and began rolling back. The two halves collided and exploded. The fire spread underground through a storm drain and ignited a holding pond at a chemical plant. More than 1,000 residents and at least 1,000 schoolchildren were evacuated.
And then in October, in separate instances, Norfolk Southern derailed two long trains, both in Georgia. One was 2 miles long. The engineer had struggled to control it, and his use of the brakes caused the rear of the train to run into the front and lift a car off the tracks. The other train was 1.6 miles long. Its autopilot had the brakes applied in the front and the engine in the middle giving it gas, and as it reached the bottom of a hill the opposing forces popped 32 cars off the tracks. They ruptured a pipeline, which released nearly 2.3 million gallons of natural gas.
The following summer, in June 2020, a 2.3-mile-long Union Pacific train derailed in Idaho because it was too big, the FRA determined. It was constructed unevenly with 34 empty cars coupled near the front and loaded, heavy cars behind them. The heavy cars pushed the light cars off the tracks. The FRA also determined the engineer lacked the training necessary to operate a train of that length.
In July 2020, a 2-mile-long BNSF train derailed in Arizona for similar reasons: a long block of heavy cars coupled behind a set of empty cars squeezed them off the tracks.
Clearly, the February Norfolk Southern derailment was not an “if” but a “when” scenario. The purpose of these extra-long trains is to cut down on personnel, engine costs and train stop-starts, which all dig into train operators’ enormous bottom line. It seems the feds are only interested in handing out often-ignored “recommendations” on the size of freight trains, rather than setting down hard and fast regulations. With 40 percent of all consumer products sold in the U.S. traveling by train at some point, and with millions of dollars in donations from the rail freight industry flooding congress every year, we can almost certainly expect more needless derailments in the future.
The story goes into harrowing detail about what life looks like for the residents of towns affected by derailments, and it is well worth your time. You can find the whole ProPublica article here.