The US railroad industry trade group pushed back against comments made about rail safety in an unusually forceful letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who spoke with the media and participated in a press conference last week ahead of the one-year anniversary of the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.  

The Association of American Railroads said that rail is the safest mode of cargo transportation and safer than other industries when measured by injury and illness per hours worked by employees. Since 2000, the industry has also improved its employee casualty rates by 46% and train accidents per million train miles have decreased 23%, the trade group said in the letter. 

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg

“That is why it is so disheartening to hear those who know better misrepresent the industry’s safety record — and its continuing efforts to become even safer — in furtherance of their own agendas,” said the letter, signed by Ian Jefferies, chief executive officer of the AAR. “Allowing misunderstandings about freight rail safety to go uncorrected undercuts public confidence, not only in the safety of one key component of our nation’s critical infrastructure, but also in your department.”

A Norfolk Southern Corp. freight train derailed in the small town of East Palestine on Feb. 3 last year, catching fire and spilling chemicals. Two days later, Norfolk Southern executives and government officials decided to vent and burn chemicals in five tanker cars that they feared would explode, sending a plume of dark smoke over the town. 

As outrage over the accident grew, Norfolk Southern moved to remediate the water and soil and sent up programs to help residents, some of whom are still living in hotel rooms. The railroad has incurred costs of more than $1 billion from the accident. 

President Joe Biden announced he will visit the town that sits on the mainline between Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Trains have resumed running through East Palestine. 

The AAR said that an often cited statistic of more than 1,000 train derailments a year is also misleading because “more than three-quarters of those derailments are in rail yards or other low-speed tracks — akin to fender benders — not on the main rail lines that carry freight around the country.”

The trade group said that hot-bearing detectors, which flagged too late a faulty wheelset on a railcar that caused the Norfolk Southern derailment, have been placed alongside tracks voluntarily by railroads. The industry agreed to lower the temperature threshold for flagging anomalies and are installing hundreds more on the rail network. 

“Railroads are wholeheartedly dedicated to advancing safety through our own initiatives and collaborative efforts with the DOT,” the letter said.