Understanding train derailments, how they happen, next steps in prevention

CHARLOTTE — You’ve seen the extensive damage in Ohio, West Virginia, and Greece on the news, but less severe train derailments are far from irregular.

According to the Federal Railway Administration’s Office of Safety Analysis (FRA), the United States sees over 1,000 train derailments per year. In 2022, the total number of derailments reached 1,734—an increase of 88 compared to 2021. The state of North Carolina saw a slight uptick in derailments from 2021 to 2022, while South Carolina saw a decrease in derailments from 2021 to 2022.

As clean-up efforts continue in East Palestine, Channel 9 turned our focus to the Carolinas to better understand state transportation regulations and figure out whether state or national derailments were on the rise and why. We spoke with state officials about what causes these derailments, preventative measures, current safety procedures, and the future of railway safety.

What causes a train to derail?

We reached out to Tom Allen, Director of Safety, Transportation, and Telecommunications with the Office of Regulatory Safety (ORS) in South Carolina, who told us almost all train derailments are preventable, but most are a combination of causes, not just one malfunction.

“In regards to track, it may be wide or narrow gauge, a broken rail, or some other defect in the rail. Derailments can be caused by outside force damage such as a tree or debris on the track, a grade crossing collision, or a washout of the rail bed,” Allen said. “There may be a mechanical issue such as a flaw in the wheel, bearings, or trucks. Human factors can also lead to derailments, such as excessive speed, failure to apply brakes appropriately, or a misaligned switch.”

According to Allen, a ‘sun-kink’, where the shape of the track is bent from high temperatures, is the only non-preventible malfunction that could lead to a derailment.

“This is not commonly seen in SC but it is in the Great Plains and the desert, where there is excessive deviation between overnight and daytime temperatures,” Allen said.

When asked about the increase in train derailments on the national level, Allen explained that it’s not the number of trains that derail, but the number of cars. With more products, more people, and longer distances, it makes sense for more cars to be added to the train -- but more cars increase the possibility of a larger derailment.

“Over the last 10 years, most railroads have instituted PSR or Precision Service Railroading. In sum, this leads to longer trains,” Allen said. “Therefore, we are no longer seeing two or three cars derail during an accident or incident but 15 or 20 cars derail during an accident or incident.”

Channel 9 also reached out to the FRA’s Public Affairs Specialist, Cory Gattie, who provided a deeper insight.

According to Gattie and the FRA, “a derailment happens when on-track equipment leaves the rail for a reason other than a collision, explosion, highway-rail grade crossing impact, etc.”

Gattie also said that most derailments happen inside the rail yards and are caused by faulty tracks or basic human error.

What action is taken after a train derails?

Once a train has derailed, ORS inspectors go to the scene and begin investigating the area, including the track and equipment. Inspectors will even go as far as recreating the scene to figure out the cause of the derailment.

After the investigation into the derailment is finished and a cause is confirmed, the railroad will be given a notice of defect. Following the notice, the railroad will have to fix the issue that caused the derailment or come up with a preventative plan to stop future derailments. According to Allen, the Federal Railroad Administration can also give the railroad a violation forcing them to pay a fine.

Gattie explained that all railroads are privately owned, which means all response, repairs, and safety concerns are handled by the operator. An FRA investigation is launched into train accidents that involve casualties, dangerous chemicals or materials, and accidents that are too expensive for the railroad itself to cover.

According to the FRA’s Accident/Incident Reporting regulations, the railroad operator has to send an accident report, with details about the crash and its cause. This report counts as the railroad’s account of the crash and is completely separate from the FRA’s investigation. Both reports are due 30 days after the month the accident happened. Following approval, the reporting forms are posted to the Safety Data Website three months later.

Can you explain current railroad safety protocols? Will there be any improvements or changes made in the near future?

Railroads across the country follow federal legislation for training and safety protocols under the Federal Railroad Administration. From Amtrak to CSX, all railroads are held to a similar standard of safety.

According to the FRA, all railroads must have plans for training, safety, certification, and recertification of all employees, which includes engineers and conductors. ORS inspectors are also sent to the railroads regularly to make sure they are following their safety protocols.

As for the Palmetto State, Allen doesn’t think any major changes are on the way.

“I do anticipate that there will be regulatory changes. I cannot yet anticipate what those might be at this time. It appears that the Federal Railroad Administration will certainly look at HBDs (hot box detectors, or hot bearing detectors),” Allen said.

An HBD is a piece of railroad equipment that reads the temperature of wheel bearings on trains to see whether or not they’re overheating. According to a safety advisory from the FRA, railroads are being encouraged to monitor their HBDs, as the East Palestine derailment was most likely caused by a burnt wheel bearing.

Gattie told Channel 9 that plans are already in motion to improve railroad safety nationally, due to the spotlight on the rail industry following the recent Ohio and West Virginia derailments.

“As you may have deduced, the national spotlight is currently on the rail industry and its regulators to ensure incidents like those in Ohio are minimized. Enacting and pushing for stronger rail safety and accountability measures is at the top of U.S Department of Transportation (USDOT) Secretary Buttigieg, FRA Administrator Amit Bose, and our agency’s mind,” Gattie said, “We’ll take appropriate steps as necessary to ensure we’re doing our job as a regulator to ensure incidents such as those of late are minimized. On February 21, Secretary Buttigieg outlined a three-part drive to take action.”

(WATCH BELOW: NCDOT: Delayed maintenance directly contributed to CATS)

Susannah Will, wsoctv.com

Susannah is a content center producer for WSOC.