Ahead of next week’s NTSB hearing in East Palestine, it is critical to remember rail is the safest way to move goods over land. This record is a credit to the professionalism of rail workers and sustained investments in infrastructure and technology. The industry is motivated by a safety culture grounded in a steadfast commitment to preventing accidents and safeguarding the well-being of communities and rail employees.

This safety culture also demands that when there is an incident, railroads review what occurred and work with federal agencies should they launch independent investigations. Lessons learned are swiftly translated into action like enhanced industry standards capable of preventing a similar accident. Railroads don’t wait for regulation or legislation; as the industry learns more, railroads act to enhance safety.

East Palestine is no exception.

Railroads’ Response

Since the NTSB released its preliminary findings, railroads used the information to drive meaningful actions that address what happened in the February 2023 incident. While railroads will need time to review the final report, we anticipate the report will focus at least in part on bearings and wayside detectors, tank car standards and supporting first responders. In each of these areas, the industry has responded.

Wayside Detectors & Inspections

Preliminary reports indicate that an overheated bearing caused the derailment. Starting decades ago, railroads voluntarily developed and have since widely deployed wayside detectors to help prevent these types of accidents. The data clearly demonstrates they have enhanced safety. Since East Palestine, railroads have taken three key steps that work in concert to further enhance the effectiveness of these detectors including:

  • Increased the frequency of hot bearing detectors (HBDs) across key routes. Class I railroads have purchased and installed hundreds of additional HBDs across their key routes, with more to come online in 2024. These HBDs are complemented by additional existing and evolving technologies targeted at effectively identifying bearing defects.
  • Established a new industry standard of stopping and inspecting trains when an HBD reading exceeds 170°F. Effective July 1, 2023, AAR rules lowered the temperature threshold from 200°F to 170°.
  • Reviewed carriers’ current trending analysis programs to develop uniform recommendations for proactively identifying bearings that may become problematic. On November 29, 2023, railroads established a new, industry-wide trending analysis rule, informed by Railinc’s comprehensive analysis of 150 algorithms used by the Class I carriers to pinpoint the most effective algorithm for detecting problematic bearings. Railinc is the industry’s leading technology and data solutions partner.

First Responders

Ensuring first responders are properly trained to respond safely in the event of an incident and can access the information they need should an incident occur are top priorities for the rail industry. Since February of 2023, railroads have redoubled these efforts through:

  • Dramatically expanding access to AskRail, which provides real-time information on rail car contents and the safe handling of those materials. Today, AskRail information is now available to more than 2.3 million first responders across the U.S. and Canada through our work with both CHEMTREC and CANUTEC, emergency call centers for hazmat handling as well as with dispatchers in Emergency Communications Centers (ECCs). Railroads continue outreach and onboarding for ECCs across the nation with 224 fully onboarded and another 55 currently in the onboarding process.
  • This year Class I railroads have trained more than 16,000 first responders and more than 1,000 have received specialized training at the industry’s Security and Emergency Response Training Center (SERTC). In 2023, Class I railroads trained about 35,500 first responders and provided specialized training at SERTC to 1,800 responders.

Enhanced Tank Car Standards

Based upon the public hearing last year, it is likely the NTSB will also call for enhancements to tank car standards, something railroads have strongly supported for decades. Since the incident, railroads have:

  • Identified ways to improve the fire performance of tank cars and other service equipment. AAR's tank car committee is working to enhance standards related to bottom valve protection to increase safety. This is a voluntary joint initiative between the industry and the hazmat shippers who own the tank cars.

What’s Next?

Upon release of the NTSB report, railroads will do the same thing they have at every step of this process — review the findings and look for ways to improve safety. While that review and subsequent steps will take time, the record clearly demonstrates that the industry has thoughtfully considered the preliminary findings and identified steps to enhance safety based off the information.

Key Data

Freight rail remains the safest option for transporting hazardous materials over land.

  • More than 99.99% of all hazmat moved by rail reaches its destination without a release caused by a train accident.
  • The rail hazmat accident rate per carload was its lowest ever in 2023 and fell 75% from 2000 to 2023.

Class I rail carriers privately invest an average of $23 billion annually into rail safety, employee training, infrastructure improvements and technological advancements. Since 2000, these Class I and other industry efforts resulted in:

  • 42% reduction in Class I mainline accident rates.
  • 50% decrease in track-caused accident rates.
  • 31% drop in equipment-caused accident rate

Railroads also continue to make strides in on employee safety, including:

  • For all railroads, on-duty fatalities declined 71% since 2000, and reached an all-time low in 2023.
  • For Class I railroad employees, the rate of injuries and fatalities has dropped by 62% since 2000, reaching an all-time low in 2023.