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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Rail safety

Are we willing to learn from the mistakes of the past?


There but for the grace of God.
It’s worth considering that the recent environmental disaster created by the train derailment near East Palestine, Ohio, could have devastated virtually any community along any rail line in the country— and that includes downtown Cook, Orr, and Virginia, which are all connected by the heavily-trafficked Canadian National rail line.
While railroads overall have a generally good safety record, and Canadian National has a better record than most, the impact of rail accidents when they inevitably occur, can be profound. Millions of tons of hazardous chemicals and highly flammable fuels are routinely shipped by rail, so when a derailment occurs, the results can be catastrophic.
If a company proposed building a toxic chemical plant in Cook or Orr, we suspect most residents would be dead set against it, for fear of accidental releases. Yet the cumulative equivalent of a chemical plant quietly moves through our communities on a regular basis on the CN line. And while derailments aren’t commonplace, we’ve reported on several of them over the years. So far, the area has been fortunate that the wrong rail cars weren’t part of the accident.
East Palestine, Ohio, certainly isn’t the first community to be devastated by a rail accident. Indeed, they’ve been relatively lucky since no one has died so far from the effects of the release of tons of hazardous chemicals, even though fish and other aquatic organisms in the area haven’t been so lucky.
Given the risks posed by railroads, appropriate regulation is the key to public safety. Over the years, tragic rail accidents have, on occasion, provided an impetus for new safety regulations, and that’s appropriate. Humans learn most effectively from our mistakes, which is why investigations are critically important, both to understand the causes of accidents as well as to devise regulatory steps to reduce their likelihood in the future.
Unfortunately, the U.S. has been going the wrong way on rail safety over the past several years. The rate of rail accidents averaged around 2.5 per every million miles driven from 2013-16, but jumped beginning in 2017 and reached a rate of 2.97 accidents for every million miles driven, as of 2019. That’s a 19 percent increase over just three years. It’s not entirely clear why that’s happened, however, it’s worth noting that increase coincided exactly with the Trump administration, which proved to be a pushover for the industry.
While Trump was in Ohio last week in an effort to put the blame for the accident on President Biden, it was Trump who killed a new rule promulgated by the Obama administration, that would have required improvements in the braking systems on trains, dramatically improving stopping distances. That rule might not have made a difference in the most recent accident, but stopping distance is a critical issue for train safety across the country.
The Trump administration claimed the costs associated with the improvements exceeded the benefits, but the administration later acknowledged, after reporting by the Associated Press, that it had failed to calculate more than $100 million in benefits from the rule. Most former presidents who kowtowed to the rail industry on safety wouldn’t have the gall to attack their successor over a derailment. But one thing we know for sure about Donald Trump is that he’s utterly shameless. He’ll twist anything for political advantage.
While some sense of regulatory balance must be achieved in order to make the economy run, when we tilt the scale too far in the favor of industry, there is a cost— one that most often falls on small, low-income communities like East Palestine. When you hear politicians talk of the need for deregulation, keep in mind who is most likely to pay the price for those decisions. It certainly won’t be rail company executives living in their gated communities.
Safety improvements rarely come at the behest of the industry. It takes laws and regulations enacted by government to make them happen. Regulation has already made the rail sector safer than it used to be, and certainly safer than it would be if left to industry to decide. In the wake of a major rail accident like the one in Ohio, it’s worth asking whether we’ll learn from the event and take steps to reduce the danger the next time. One thing we know for certain is that there will a next time. The only question is which community will be in the crosshairs.