A prediction of disaster: Experts say it’s ‘when, not if’ for a Pittsburgh toxic train wreck

PITTSBURGH — A Prediction of Disaster: Experts say so far the Pittsburgh area has been “Lucky. Very lucky.”

The key chemical used in a terror attack on America, a highly flammable chemical and an explosive form of crude oil are just some of the dangerous ingredients 11 Investigates found on trains rolling through your neighborhoods every day.

With new safety questions following East Palestine, they spent weeks investigating whether Pittsburgh could be vulnerable to the next disaster.

For the past decade, it’s been derailment after the other in the nation and in Pennsylvania.

“I’m more than concerned, I’m scared,” said Glenn Olcerst, a local train safety advocate, attorney, and co-founder of Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh. “And every one of your viewers has very good reason to also be scared.”

Why? Let’s look at the numbers.

U.S. Department of Transportation records show that from 2013 to 2022, the state of Pennsylvania had the following numbers of freight trail mishaps:

  • 430 accidents
  • 290 derailments

Out of that 290, eight resulted in a hazardous chemical release to the surrounding area.

On a longer timeline, those same records show that from 1975, there have been 2,086 train HAZMAT releases due to train accidents. Of those, Pennsylvania ranks third in the nation with 114 releases. Illinois is second in the country, with Texas at number one.

In fact, Olcerst says the amount of traffic passing through Pittsburgh is going to increase.

“It’s going to go from 20 to 25 trains a day through Pittsburgh, ultimately to full maximum capacity, which is 70-80 trains a day. And that volume presents risks,” said Olcerst.

What kind of risks?

Channel 11 did some trainspotting around our city and freight train cargo included highly flammable chemicals like propylene, ethanol, and liquid petroleum.

We also found ammonium nitrate.

Does that last one sound familiar?

It was used to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City in April of 1995. The perpetrator: Timothy McVeigh.

David Masur is the Executive Director for PennEnvironment.

“Sadly, Pittsburgh could be the eye of the storm for a dangerous accident,” said Masur.

He says that what rolls through our Pittsburgh is “a toxic cocktail.” But the author and environmentalist says there’s an even bigger risk on those trains: Crude oil.

Case in point: Lac-megantic, Quebec, 2013.

Some said the disaster looked like the apocalypse with flames and smoke curling high in the sky, enveloping the town.

It started when a Canadian Pacific Train carrying especially explosive Bakken Crude Oil ran off its tracks.

The crude ignited and the town was incinerated and 47 people died.

So what about our area?

“We move a fair amount of oil and gas that can be very dangerous,” says Masur.

In fact, Masur and his colleagues studied this issue in a report they named “Danger Around the Bend.”

The 2015 report found that if a crude accident happened here, as many as 500,000 Allegheny County residents would need to be evacuated.

As for Pittsburgh, Masur says first to envision the city’s daily rush hour traffic jam.

“I mean, can you imagine if you’re trying to move 10, 20, 30,000 people out of the city to avoid an accident?” Masur said.

There’s also another factor that many are increasing the odds of more hazardous release derailments: Longer and longer trains.

“They’ve gone from a mile, mile and a quarter, to two to three miles long,” said Scott Wilcox. He was a locomotive engineer for Norfolk Southern for 20 years. Now retired, he says although carrying more cargo per train may increase the company’s profits, there is a drawback.

“It makes for very bad train handling. You know, the train doesn’t respond very well that way” said Wilcox. “You have all of this length of train and you’re pulling it around these curves. You’re putting a lot of stress throughout that train. When you add the hills in there/ you’re creating more stress.”

Wilcox says it makes it more likely that will crash or derail.

“If they could keep it down to between 100, 120 cars, that would be reasonable,” he said.

However, when we went on train-watching excursions in Pittsburgh, we saw a Norfolk Southern train made of 200 cars and another one that was nearly two miles long.

It’s part of why advocate Glenn Olcerst makes the following prediction.

“This is not ‘if’, it’s ‘when’. And if we don’t get a handle on this, there’s going to be a Norfolk nightmare coming soon to a neighborhood near you.”

We reached out to Norfolk Southern for comment.

Spokesperson Connor Spielmacher declined to go on camera but sent us the following statement:

“First, I want to be clear that Norfolk Southern is focused on becoming an even safer railroad. We continue to work closely with the NTSB, FRA, and other regulators and officials investigating East Palestine and other subsequent derailments to identify changes that can be made. In addition, we’ve been clear in our support for many aspects of rail safety legislation put forth recently:

To your first point, this former engineer is almost certainly referencing a focus on operating ratio (OR). Unfortunately, some have gauged success with PSR based on attaining a low operating ratio (OR) (a common industry measure of efficiency). In December, we announced a deliberate move away from a singular focus on operating ratio (OR). For us, we said we will continue to be efficient with all our resources to deliver a safe, reliable, and resilient service product to benefit our customers and the U.S. supply chain. Instead of determining success solely based on low OR, which in the past has indeed meant cutting costs and furloughing employees, our focus is on delivering a balanced approach to achieve consistent service, productivity, and growth.

One of the key talking points against PSR is that it is worse for employees, worse for safety, and worse for those wanting to ship via rail. Those complaints are primarily (from our view) driven by one aspect of PSR, that race to lowest operating ratio. NS is not focused solely on achieving the lowest operating ratio, but rather balancing our strategy to drive growth, deliver for our customers, and retain our workforce.

To your second point, since the implementation of our new operating plan TOP|SPG last year, we’ve been studying the way trains operate across our network. With safety and continuous improvement in mind, we introduced a number of operational changes in March that address the way trains are built with the goal of minimizing train incidents, including derailments, by managing potential in-train forces. Trains over certain lengths and weights, for example, require the use of distributed power (DP) units. We’ve also adjusted the positioning of lighter and heavier cars to further manage weight distribution in trains, as well as the positioning of cars equipped with cushioning devices to further manage slack.

On inspections: prior to 2015, much of our car inspection process relied on FRA regulations, which outlines what an inspection must include. Our process outlines how those FRA regulations are carried out by our crews. We went across our network to document many of our processes to get a better understanding of how our teams are performing their jobs across 22 states. This included car inspections, which resulted in a standard mechanical inspection process that complies with FRA guidelines. We also conducted a study of experienced crews who perform this inspection, which yielded an average one-minute average cycle time per car across our network. This was set as our guideline to crews and is documented for their awareness. It’s important to note that this is not a rule that requires strict compliance and is a guideline for what crews can expect in order to complete the procedure. In fact, our current average car inspection time is approximately two minutes, which is one minute longer than the average that was set by professional craft railroaders performing the same inspection and offered as a guide to crews.

It is not accurate to say NS has “reduced” the standard amount of time for a car inspection since the implementation of PSR. What we have done is documented and standardized what a proper inspection looks like, and the time it should take a qualified railroader to complete that inspection. Any repair activities performed as a result of the inspection is outside the standard work documentation being referenced. We also exceed FRA guidelines by performing an additional inspection of incoming trains in addition to departing trains.

Lastly, you’re right – railroads are tasked with transporting the goods and materials that power the U.S. economy. As a common carrier, we are required to carry all of those materials. More importantly, rail remains the safest way to transport hazardous materials with more than 99.9% of all hazmat reaching its destination without a release caused by a train accident. Beyond these facts, though, are the efforts we’re making to reach communities and ensure they are prepared to respond to a railroad incident. Through Norfolk Southern’s Operation Awareness & Response, we train thousands of first responders each year with our safety train that travels our network. Beyond our safety train, we also can come to firehouses locally to give smaller classes, or our contractors can visit with other equipment to get hands-on with. Lastly, we work with first responders to provide commodity information so they have the information they need to craft emergency response plans for incidents involving the railroad and the materials we are required to carry. Our safety train was actually in the area last year as part of an industry event, and will be back later this year in Pitcairn with our normal 3-day program as well as a full-scale drill. All of this is offered at no cost to local communities. "

Finally, we also reached out to the CSX company whose trains also appeared in our program. They also sent us a statement from their CEO:

The safety of our employees and the communities where we operate is the highest priority for CSX in delivering the essential goods used by American families every day. The transportation of all of our freight, including hazardous materials, is done in accordance with strict federal regulations and it is important that we are able to operate safely in order to carry out our common carrier obligations.

CSX complies with Federal law concerning rail security and emergency preparedness, working with Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPC), county and state Emergency Management agencies to ensure they have a comprehensive list of hazardous commodities transported in their communities, so that first responders are prepared in the extremely rare occurrence of a hazmat release. We work closely with first responders across our network and regulatory agencies to ensure proper planning and safety protocols are followed to protect our communities, employees, and customers.

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