On Feb. 3, the world was flipped upside-down for residents of a small Eastern Ohio town — a community not unlike dozens all across Indiana.
A passing freight train jumped the tracks late that night, spewing flammable and toxic chemicals into the air and water. East Palestine and its residents have been reeling from the environmental disaster ever since.
While the investigation into the crash continues, labor leaders and industry experts say trains have become less safe and there is a growing risk for accidents like the one in Ohio. The next one could happen right here in Indiana, where nearly every day trains hauling hazardous materials roll over the network of more than 5,000 miles of track that weave across the state.
In fact, the train that derailed in Ohio passed through Indiana on its journey and already had shown signs of trouble.
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The Norfolk Southern train departed from Madison, Ill. and crossed Indiana on a route taking it through Lafayette, Peru and Fort Wayne and several other smaller towns before heading into Ohio —– all the while carrying the same chemicals responsible for the ongoing disaster. It even broke apart between Decatur, Ill. and Peru, Ind., experts said, possibly because the train's length, weight and make-up made it heavy and difficult to handle.
“Anyone of those communities the train went through could have been impacted like East Palestine has been,” said Kenny Edwards, the Indiana state legislative director for SMART Transportation Division, a rail labor union.
Edwards and other critics fear safety is being compromised by railroad cost-cutting efforts, including reduced training, workforce reductions, longer trains and the industry's lobbying to fight regulations.
“What you saw in East Palestine is the natural arc of all those factors lining up: cutting everything, doing away with regulations, giving money to politicians to prevent safer requirements. That is what’s at the end of that rainbow: East Palestine, Ohio," the labor official said. "And there is nothing stopping that from happening in Indiana or anywhere else.”
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The thousands of miles of railroad lines crisscrossing Indiana pass through big cities including Indianapolis, Evansville and Fort Wayne, as well as small towns such as Attica, Syracuse and Princeton. Nearly 2 million Hoosiers live in communities along railroads. More than half of those people are in the Indianapolis area.
In the past decade, there have been approximately 10,000 railroad incidents across the country involving releases of hazardous chemicals, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They have been caused by a variety of factors: derailment, explosion, operator error, equipment failure, and more.
Roughly 500 of those incidents have been in Indiana, the EPA told IndyStar.
In the weeks since the train jumped the rails in East Palestine, there have been at least two other rail incidents involving hazardous materials: one near Detroit and the other outside Houston. And just last year, multiple cars derailed at a yard west of Indianapolis in Avon, though no hazmats were released.
While the damage in each incident was less severe than in Ohio, they underscored the ever-present risk — one that often is invisible until it’s too late.
The railroad companies and its industry group, the Association of American Railroads, say they have made significant advances in technology as well as major investments in maintaining and improving infrastructure over the years.
“Let us be clear: Railroads have no higher priority than safety,” AAR spokeswoman Jessica Kahanek said in an emailed response to IndyStar. “The industry has a long history of taking data-driven, proactive steps to enhance safety.”
But the question remains: Is it enough?
Industry experts and Indiana emergency planning officials said now is the time to take a close look and find an answer.
“As tragic as this is, there is a window that’s open to have an opportunity to think about our railroad system — as rail companies, as emergency responders, as the public — and ask what role we play in it and how we can assist in making it better,” said Richard Doyle, Fire Chief of the Lafayette Fire Department.
Toxic chemicals move across Indiana every day
The investigation of what happened in East Palestine is still underway, but the National Transportation Safety Board believes a wheel bearing in a car overheated and failed immediately before the train derailed.
The train was made up of nearly 150 cars, 20 of which contained hazardous materials. As a result of the derailment, 38 cars left the track — 11 of those being hazmat cars — and a fire ensued.
The tankers were filled with vinyl chloride, an explosive and carcinogenic chemical, and other potentially toxic contaminants that were either released into the air by the fire or spilled into waterways. Natural resource officials estimate more than 43,000 fish and animals in the area died during the derailment.
The train wreck also triggered evacuations for the small Ohio town near the Pennsylvania border because of health concerns. While residents have been cleared to return home, some have complained about headaches, difficulty breathing as well as skin and eye irritation. The EPA has ordered Norfolk Southern, the rail company behind the spill, to clean up the contamination.
Indiana has dozens, if not hundreds of communities positioned like East Palestine along rail lines. Yet decisions about their safety are often made in faraway boardrooms.
Toxic chemicals and hazardous materials are passing through many communities “every single day,” said Bernie Beier, director of Homeland Security for Allen County. There are around 30 million total rail shipments every year, and roughly 7 to 8% of that traffic is hazmat, according to Kahanek with AAR — that means as many as 2.4 million hazmat shipments across the country each year.
Even if there is an incident less than 1% of the time, the group acknowledged that small percentage has “the potential to dramatically impact the communities served,” Kahanek said. “Railroads take this responsibility seriously and have no higher priority than safety."
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Still, many communities have no idea what is in the train rolling though their downtowns and past backyards, Beier said.
There is a reason for that, according to AAR: It would be dangerous if people knew in advance the precise details of when and where hazardous chemicals were moving. While that may be true, it makes it difficult to know where exactly in the state and along which railroads the risk is highest.
But accidents are more likely to happen in smaller towns, according to a rail transportation consultant. That's because the trains typically are moving at higher speeds through these areas.
While the specific details of what each train is not disclosed in advance, local officials like Beier believe more could and should be done to raise awareness of the possible risks.
“We forget about that," the Allen County official said, "until there is an accident or spill like this.”
Local emergency planners can request and receive — on an annual basis — a list of hazmats passing through their communities. That helps them plan for the types of products they may encounter and informs their training, which they often do in tandem with the rail companies.
Both Beier and Doyle with the Lafayette fire department said they find the companies to be good partners in preparedness. They said they hope they are prepared, but still acknowledge the uncertainty.
“We know with the railroad corridor we have, there’s a potential there,” Doyle said. “The railroad goes right through our downtown and right next to our river, that would be a worst case scenario.”
Changes to railroad industry put safety at risk
But Edwards and others worry these types of events could become more common given changes to the industry in recent years.
It started around 2015 with what’s called Precision Scheduled Railroading, or PSR, a controversial innovation that has focused on cutting costs and keeping trains in constant motion. This approach spread throughout the major rail companies — including both Norfolk Southern and CSX, Indiana’s two main railroad operators — and it has been profitable for them.
But at what expense, questioned rail transportation consultant Grady Cothen Jr., a former official at the Federal Railroad Administration.
“The beauty of PSR is that, at least for a while, it drives cash to the bottom line that can be used to reward investors handsomely,” he wrote last year in a white paper about railroad safety. On the other hand, “the mistakes that railroads were making two or three decades ago keep happening, but they may be happening more frequently due to the pressures of PSR.”
Some of the main PSR changes that have contributed to potential problems include longer trains, a mixed arrangement of train cars, reduced workforce and minimized training.
Rail companies have continued to extend their train lengths in recent years. Kahanek with AAR said that 95% of the time, a train’s length is under 11,000 feet, or just over two miles. The train that derailed in Ohio stretched more than 9,300 feet, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. But as trains get longer, Edwards said there is more equipment to go wrong and they are harder to control.
Under PSR, the industry has also faced significant cuts to the workforce, Edwards said: “They’ve cut their manpower to the bone.” And for those new employees brought in, their training is minimal.
The railroads stress that they follow strict federal regulations along with operating procedures focused on ensuring hazardous material shipments arrive without incident. AAR also told IndyStar that new technologies have allowed railroads to operate trains more safely. Those include sensors along the tracks that can detect problems early and pass that information along to the operators.
Rail companies also contend that "longer trains have not had a negative effect on safety,” Norfolk Southern told IndyStar in an emailed response. The railroad industry group is quick to point out how crucial rail transit is to the economy and that “railroads have a proven track record of safety.”
Rail industry pushes back against safety rules
While rail companies tout their role as the backbone of the economy, they also have a history of pushing back against safety protocols. Former Federal Railroad Administration officials say the Ohio incident points to a systemic breakdown and the challenges of improving safety.
A previous regulation established in 2015 under the Obama administration required the installment of electronically controlled brakes, or those that apply braking simultaneously across the train, on certain trains carrying hazardous materials. But the Trump administration rolled back that rule because of its belief that the costs exceeded the benefits. Around that same time, Norfolk Southern wrote it appreciated the opportunity to participate in a “wide-sweeping, and necessary, review of the regulatory burdens” imposed on the industry.
While the new ECP brakes would not have been required for the train involved in the East Palestine incident, groups are still pushing for the Biden administration to bring it back.
Norfolk Southern is among the nation’s five largest railroads, and last year earned a record $12.7 billion in revenue. Between a share buyback plan and dividend payments, the company paid shareholders a total of $4.6 billion in 2022.
“Railroads are returning billions of dollars to shareholders every year, and the major fear among those watching closely is that they are pushing PSR too hard,” Cothen Jr. said in his white paper.
Edwards, the Indiana union leader, said rail companies such as NS and CSX also have used their influence to remove state laws across the country — including in Indiana — that limit the amount of time trains can block crossings.
Now, he and Indiana safety officials said, the Ohio disaster has created an opportunity to look at ways to protect people living and working near rail lines, including more than 2 million Hoosiers.
“We want to make sure," Edwards said, "that the communities we are passing through are safe.”
Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook.
IndyStar's environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indiana communities at risk for train disasters like the one in Ohio