Freight Rail Safety: What to Know in the Wake of the Ohio Rail Derailment

Freight Rail Safety in the U.S.

Freight railroads are an integral part of the logistics industry, helping to manage the supply chain and deliver goods to consumers and businesses around the world. With the rise of global commerce, the need for safe, efficient freight rail transportation has never been greater.

Last month’s freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio has made freight railroads and their safety into a household topic.

The train in Ohio was carrying toxic chemicals, and its derailment caused an environmental and safety hazard for nearby residents and businesses. Now, policymakers and railroad operators alike are being forced to grapple with rail safety, an issue that is becoming more and more necessary as new intermodal transportation networks are established across the U.S.

Understanding Railroad Regulations

Freight railroad safety is regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The FRA has enacted numerous regulations to ensure the safety of freight rail transportation, including requirements for track maintenance, equipment safety, and personnel training.

However, a recent issue we all learned from the Ohio train derailment was that those inspections were not occurring on a regular basis and being overlooked. The FRA regularly reviews and updates its rules and regulations to reflect the latest safety standards, but its up to railroad operators to implement them. Keeping up to date with these changes is essential for maintaining safe freight rail transportation for goods.

What can freight railroad operators do to increase safety?

Implementing new safety technologies is a must to further reduce the risk of accidents. Technologies such as trackside sensors, automated signals, and data logging systems can help detect potential hazards and reduce the chance of derailments. Investing in these technologies can save time and money in the long run, by reducing the risk of costly accidents. But, because the government has not heavily invested in new rail infrastructure until recent years (with stimulus and infrastructure bills), there is a lot of lag time between available technology and implementation.

Another important technology is Positive Train Control (PTC). PTC is an integrated system of hardware, software, and communication links that can help prevent train-to-train collisions and other accidents. The FRA mandated that all freight railroads must have implemented PTC by the end of 2020, although some extensions were given because of the pandemic.

How can railroad personnel be better trained?

The safety of freight railroad personnel is also an important consideration to improve overall rail safety. Railroad workers often work long hours in hazardous conditions, and the risk of injury or death is always present. Logistics professionals should ensure that their personnel are properly trained and have the necessary safety equipment to do their jobs safely. Regular safety meetings and drills can also help ensure that employees are aware of the potential risks and how to mitigate them.

It appears, from early reports, that many of the factors that led to the Ohio train derailment were driven by lackluster employee training and too few proper safety protocols being in place by the railroad. At the end of the day, the government can take many actions, but it is up to the rail personnel to enforce safety measures.

What comes next for the rail industry?

The latest rail disaster has shown that freight railroad safety is an essential consideration for railroad operators and shippers alike. Rail operators must better understand and follow the regulations set forth by the FRA, and must invest more into safety technologies. This disaster will likely force railroad personnel to undergo some enhanced training to help reduce the risk of accidents. Further government action is also necessary, as Congress wades further into nationwide rail safety.