Since the 2023 East Palestine derailment disaster, the railroad industry has continued to lobby against federal safety regulations, even as new data suggests that recent increases in train length have made derailments more likely.

A train yard in Richmond, California, April 27, 2023. (Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images)

Months after railroad lobbyists pressured the Biden administration to brush off railworkers’ demand for safety limits on train length, new data show longer freight trains are significantly increasing the risk of derailments across the country.

According to a new academic study evaluating a decade’s worth of federal data, one-hundred-car trains are 11 percent more likely to derail than two fifty-car trains, and two-hundred-car trains are 24 percent more likely than four fifty-car trains. The study follows other data showing that train derailments have risen since the 2023 disaster in East Palestine, Ohio.

“Even when accounting for the reduction in the number of freight trains operated when the average train is longer, longer freight trains are associated with an increase in the aggregate odds of freight train derailment,” wrote researchers at Georgetown University, Virginia Tech, and Brigham Young University. “As the Railway Safety Act of 2023 is debated including the pros and cons of longer trains, an important consideration in these debates is the additional risk of derailment in the system that comes with longer trains.”

Chart showing the odds ratio of derailment (along with 95% confidence interval) by number of cars in a train relative to a 50-car train. (“The Relationship between Freight Train Length and the Risk of Derailment,” Risk Analysis)

That legislation was proposed in the wake of the February 2023 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio. Toxic chemicals including vinyl chloride that spilled from the 9,300-foot-long,151-car train impacted roughly 110 million Americans across sixteen states, according to new data from University of Wisconsin researchers.

Railworkers blamed the train’s massive size in part for the derailment.

Despite that disaster, the Railway Safety Act was watered down and derailed in Congress after the railroad industry spent millions of dollars on lobbying and delivered more than $150,000 to key lawmakers who control Congress’s transportation oversight committees.

Also derailed was the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen’s October 2023 request that Biden administration officials issue an emergency order limiting the length of freight trains. In response, the railroad industry’s Washington lobbying group pressured the Federal Railroad Administration to deny the request — and it has stalled ever since.

Instead, the agency issued a press release in May saying it is “leading the push for more transparency and data in this area” and noting that “there is no federal statute regarding restricting train length.”

Since Congress stalled the Railway Safety Act and federal regulators refused to issue the emergency train-length order, the railroad industry has funneled more than $4 million of campaign cash into the 2024 election, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets. The top recipient of that money is Representative Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican who chairs the House Transportation Committee, which has refused to advance the Railway Safety Act.

Longer and Longer Trains

The new train-length study follows a 2019 report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office that found the average train length has increased by about 25 percent since 2008. This expansion has come despite concerns from rail experts and union representatives that “railroads do not always properly assemble their longer trains,” which “can increase the likelihood of derailment.”

Currently, the median length of the major freight trains operating in the United States is more than a mile long, with some stretching nearly three miles, according to a 2023 industry fact sheet.

Even while the dangers of long trains have become increasingly clear, railroad industry groups have been lobbying against limits on train length, claiming that these massive trains are safe and should remain on the nation’s rails.

“Experience shows these trains are safe,” wrote Ian Jefferies, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, in a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration last October. There was “absolutely no safety justification,” he continued, for an order limiting train length to under 7,500 feet.

The Association of American Railroads, the industry’s main lobbying group, spends millions of dollars lobbying in Washington each year. The association recorded spending more than $4.4 million on lobbying last year, federal disclosures show — including on “issues related to train length.” The group spent $1.3 million lobbying in the first quarter of 2024 on “issues related to rail safety” and other topics.

Additionally, Norfolk Southern, the company responsible for the Ohio derailment, spent more than $5.7 million since January 2021 lobbying the Federal Railway Administration, Congress, and other regulators on issues related to train length and weight, among other topics, disclosures show.

Just days before the Ohio disaster, the same Norfolk Southern train that derailed broke down due to its length and weight, employees told CBS News.

Rail unions and safety advocates have also repeatedly called for Congress to pass the bipartisan Railway Safety Act — yet Congress has stalled after dogged lobbying from rail companies, the chemicals industry, and the Koch network.

The Railway Safety Act, if enacted, would require the Department of Transportation to review the potential hazards of long trains and update safety regulations accordingly, taking into consideration the “impact that train length and weight have on the safe transportation of high-hazard trains.”

It would also prohibit trains that are 7,500 feet in length or longer from operating without a minimum crew size.

Railroads have historically increased train size and length as a penny-pinching response to union demands for minimum crew sizes on each train. Longer trains can also move more cargo, giving railroads a financial incentive to increase train length.

In recent years, as trains have gotten longer, the Federal Railroad Administration has begun to examine the issue more closely. In 2022, the agency published a report documenting safety concerns around long trains — finding that while labor groups were raising a variety of concerns about train length and safety, railroads were staunch in their belief that the trains were safe.

Railworkers told federal officials that longer trains were causing fatigue among workers, who were forced to work longer hours on bigger trains; that workers were not given enough time to properly inspect them; and that rail infrastructure was not always designed for such long trains. For example, long trains that stall in populated areas essentially cut communities in half for hours, blocking emergency vehicles and leading children to crawl under rail cars to get to school.

Several high-profile derailments involving long trains have recently caught regulators’ attention.

In May 2023, the Federal Railroad Administration issued a safety notice warning of the “complexities” of long trains — noting that since 2022, three “significant incidents” have occurred involving trains with two hundred or more cars.

All three incidents — two in Ohio and one in Iowa — involved trains that were more than two miles long and weighed more than seventeen thousand tons. Although federal investigations into these incidents are still ongoing, the Federal Railway Administration noted that the trains’ makeup likely contributed to the incidents.

Derailed Regulations

Norfolk Southern, owner of the train that derailed in East Palestine, helped kill a federal safety rule in 2017 that was aimed at upgrading the rail industry’s Civil War–era braking systems. The company also helped convince government officials to repeal brake rules, and corporate lobbyists watered down safety regulations for transporting hazardous materials.

While Norfolk Southern was lobbying lawmakers to loosen safety restrictions, it has also been pushing to cut corners on its own safety operations, advocating for one-person crews to manage ever-longer trains — a policy the company walked back a month after the catastrophic East Palestine derailment. In April, the Federal Railroad Administration delivered a final rule mandating that trains be manned by at least two workers.

Occidental Petroleum, the oil company whose vinyl chloride leaked off the derailed train in East Palestine, gave $2 million to Republican Senators as lawmakers watered down and stalled proposed reforms. The American Chemistry Council, a lobbying group for the chemical industry, gave $250,000 to the House Republicans.

Instead of cracking down on the derailment risk, the Biden administration has toyed with green-lighting even riskier rail projects and largely stayed out of the fight to regulate the industry.

You can subscribe to David Sirota’s investigative journalism project, the Lever, here.


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