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East Palestine train derailment one of more than 500 in Ohio over last 10 years

Delaware County train derailment 1.JPG
Matthew Rand
Residents in Delaware County are still waiting for the wreckage from a Jan. 25 train derailment to get cleaned up, nearly seven weeks later.

The toxic train derailment in East Palestine has renewed debate over train safety in Ohio and across the country.

Derailments occur with surprising frequency. Federal authorities tracked nearly 50 derailments in Ohio just last year.

Residents in Delaware County are still waiting for the wreckage from a January 25 train derailment to get cleaned up, nearly seven weeks later.

Sharon Aspery lives on Curve Road near the site of the crash. She can see the train tracks through her living room window.

“I was upstairs and my husband was in the garage, and I heard something. And I thought 'It's either a train or he's done something in the garage.' So I looked out and I saw the train there and I just assumed that's what it was," she said.

Sharon Aspery Delaware County train derailment.JPG
Matthew Rand
Sharon Aspery lives near the site of a Jan. 25 train derailment in Delaware County.

Then, a little over a week later, came the news out of East Palestine.

“When you see something like East Palestine it raises a heightened level of concern. You know, people are more interested in what's going on because it's in your backyard literally," said Scott Stewart, deputy emergency management director for Delaware County.

Fortunately, the train that derailed in Delaware County was not carrying any hazardous materials and had been certified as clean, Stewart said.

What's frustrating people in the community is the fact that the wreck is still there, nearly seven weeks later.

Norfolk Southern issued the following statement about the derailment:

"Two of the cars are currently inaccessible across a creek, and three additional cars are located on private property. Unfortunately, we can't access those cars until the property owner's attorney's allow us that access. Once we have the necessary permission, Norfolk Southern can continue the work to fully remove the scrap. We appreciate the public's patience while we work through these issues."

Delaware County train derailment 2.JPG
Matthew Rand
Train cars from the Jan. 25 derailment in Delaware County came to rest just feet from Curve Road. Fortunately, no hazardous materials were on board.

According to data from the Federal Railroad Administration, there have been over 500 derailments in Ohio in the last 10 years. NPR found that there are about three train derailments each day in the U.S., however most are not major disasters.

"Railroad accidents are not uncommon," said Steven Ditmeyer, a former senior official with the FRA.

Ditmeyer explains there are three major things that can go wrong to cause a derailment. The first kind of failure has to do with the train cars' wheels.

“That's the case at East Palestine, where a bearing on a freight car deteriorated, it overheated and then seized and that caused the derailment," Ditmeyer said.

Other risk factors include the integrity of the train tracks, as well as human error, he said.

Ditmeyer said railroad executives in recent years have championed a concept known as "precision scheduled railroading," which he said amounted to little more than a euphemism for significant cost-cutting measures.

“Wall Street loved it, railroad stock prices went up, and so on. But people were laid off, tracks were torn up, yards were closed, shops were closed, and so on," Ditmeyer said.

One of the most obvious changes: railroads began scheduling fewer, but longer trains.

"I personally am concerned about the trains getting too long. A longer train has greater mass, and that means the in-train forces are greater, the momentum is greater. And that appears to be the contributor to some of these accidents," Ditmeyer said.

Testifying last week on Capitol Hill, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw apologized for the impact the East Palestine derailment has had on people in the area. He assured residents the company will be in the community for "as long as it takes."

"In terms of community support, we have announced direct investments of over $21 million. We have provided support to more than 4,400 families through Norfolk Southern Family Assistance Center," Shaw said.

Back in Delaware County, residents hope the rail industry will take meaningful steps to improve track safety.

“I just hope they figure out what's going on, because it makes me a little nervous. We feel safe here, but I just don't understand why there's so many all of a sudden," Aspery said.

Matthew Rand is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. Rand served as an interim producer during the pandemic for WOSU’s All Sides with Ann Fisher.