How Precision Scheduled Railroading at Norfolk Southern Caused a Toxic Vinyl Chloride Mushroom Cloud Over East Palestine, Ohio

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

For want of a nail… Here’s the carnage in East Palestine the day after the derailment:

And here’s mushroom cloud after the “controlled release”:

And in video:

I think we can all agree that mushroom cloud is not looking good, and not to be minimized, despite what the State of Ohio is doing, and what the conspicously silent Pete Buttigieg is not doing:

The NOTAMs (recently in the news) restrict the airspace around the toxic mushroom cloud. You’d think there be a press release or something, even if not a heartfelt statement from Buttigieg, but no.

“East Palestine” in the NOTAMs is where Norfolk Southern (NS) train 32N derailed[1]. Here it is on a map:

As you can see, East Palestine is conveniently located between Youngstown, OH and Pittsburgh, PA, which the prevailing winds may protect; but not the Ohio River[2], a little under twenty miles to the South.

In this post, I will not cover what has been well-covered elsewhere: The derailment itself (50 cars, 20 of which carried toxic materials, 14 of those vinyl chloride), the subsquent fire, which burned for three days, the ultimate “controlled release” of the poisonous gas, the toxicity of vinyl chloride, the effects of the poison on locals, their pets, and their streams, or the arrest of the reporter who asked questions at Governor DeWine‘s presser. On the bright side, Norfolk Southern donated $25,000 to community shelters. NS is also funding a hotline to a toxicologist at an environmental consulting firm. The EPA has a timeline.

Rather, I shall begin from the very concrete (“for want of a nail…”) and move to the very abstract: From the wheel, to the truck, the cars, the firm (Norfolk Southern), and the owners.

Steel Wheels on Steel Rails

Steel wheels on steel rails inherently produce 85-99% less friction than rubber truck tires on roads; the contact point of a wheel to the rail is about the size of a dime. Hence the inherent advantage of rail over trucks for moving goods:

Compared to truck – its main competitor – train is cheaper (in the US it’s 4 cents vs 20 cents per ton-mile), more efficient (the record-breaking train was 682 cars and 4.5 miles long carrying 82,000 metric tons of ore), and more sustainable (one ton of freight can be moved over 470 miles on just a single gallon of diesel fuel).

However, if you want that advantage to be real and not just theoretical, you’ve got to maintain all that steel in good working order; after all, when things go wrong with a train that’s 4.5 miles long, they can go very, very wrong. Norfolk Southern adopted Precision Scheduled Railroading (see NC here, and alert reader Upstater, here) in 2019 (“average train speed increasing by 10%”), achieving a record operating ratio of 60.4% in 2022[3]. In so doing, it threw away the inherent advantage of rail. Specifically, in the East Palestine disaster, it did not maintain its steel wheels.

Railroad Trucks

On modern freight cars like the fire-blasted tank cars littering East Palestine, wheels come two to an axle, axles come two to a truck, trucks come two to a car. Here is an image of a truck:

I’ve highlighted the journal, which is a bearing in which an axle turns. (UPDATE Modern trucks have roller bearings, which still overheat and still catch fire.) If a bearing overheats, it’s called a “hot box.” The heat is intense, and can damage the truck or even the car. The result will be a derailment[4]. And the train that derailed at East Palestine had a hot box. Kudos to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for actually doing some reporting:

(The hot box appears at 0:19.) And in prose, they describe the CCTV footage they found:

At 8:12 p.m. on Feb. 3, the southbound freight train passed by Butech Bliss, an industrial equipment manufacturer in Salem. One car, a few dozen behind the first locomotive, glowed brightly on the bottom as it passed.

A minute later and a mile down the track, a camera at a meat processing plant called Fresh Mark captured the same fiery axle.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the investigation into the derailment, said it believes a mechanical issue with one of the rail car axles is responsible for the accident. Board member Michael Graham said at a news conference on Feb. 4 that the train crew had gotten an alert “shortly before the derailment indicating the mechanical issue,” and started to apply the brakes.

So why the hotbox? The Holler interviewed 22-year railroader and SMART-TD member Clyde Whitaker:

It looks like a faulty bearing caused a catastrophic derailment. These railroads are turning profits hand over fist. They’ve cut their workforce to bare bones. And now they’re paying the price for it because the wheels are falling off the train basically. Carmen were inspecting cars about three minutes per car. That’s always been the industry standard. Now it’s 90 seconds per car.

Is that because of PSR?

Yes. It’s a rush job right now. These guys are under pressure. I mean, they’re working men and women. And, you know, if they don’t hurry up and get this car done, they’re gonna be fired.

(Here is another NS train with a hotbox. Must have been frustrating for the crew, having lousy communications with the dispatcher.)

Railroad Cars

Railroad Workers United describes the difficulties of “blocking” (organizing) the cars under PSR:

The train severed a knuckle between two cars at Attica, IN. This occurred while the train was going downhill and while in dynamic braking. Pretty much the only time a train breaks in this scenario is when the train isn’t blocked properly. In order to mitigate in-train forces, railroads prior to PSR would build trains with the heavier cars on the head end and the lighter cars on the rear end. This prevents severe slack run-ins and run-outs throughout the trip and if the train’s emergency brakes are applied, you don’t have heavier cars running into lighter cars which causes jackknifing. This particular train had 40% of it’s weight on the rear 1/3 of the train. Most of this tonnage was made up of loaded tank cars which are very heavy and slosh back and forth when coming to a sudden stop. This sloshing after a stop can continue the pushing of more cars off a track in a jackknifing situation which is what occurred in this Ohio wreck. This block of tank cars was placed directly behind a block of cars that were in the middle of train which were equipped with cushioned draw bars. The draw bars on these cars slide in and out independent of the car body which helps protect the merchandise carried within from damage. These type of draw bars are usually on automobile carriers to prevent the cars/trucks inside from being damaged. Placing cars with these draw bars in the middle of a train creates elasticity. Building a train like this (Head end = locomotives, which are the heaviest part of any train, followed by heavy mixed freight loads, followed by a block of cushioned draw bar cars, followed by a block of heavy tank cars (such as the case with this 32N) is akin to placing two bowling balls on the ends of a rubber band and praying the rubber band doesn’t break.


Train was not blocked properly because PSR calls for limited car dwell times in terminals. Blocking a train for proper train handling (placing the majority of weight on the head end and ahead of cushioned draw bars) takes longer so this practice has been mostly eliminated by the rail carriers.

So again, the friction advantage of steel wheel on steel rail thrown away, this time through not blocking the cars properly.

Railroad Firms

Due to NS intimidating (or corrupting) the regulators, train 32N was not classified as a “high-hazard flammable train,” despite its obviously hazardous and flammable cargo. Such a classification would have affected both its speed and its route (possibly not through East Palestine). From Lever News:

Though the company’s 150-car train in Ohio reportedly burst into 100-foot flames upon derailing — and was transporting materials that triggered a fireball when they were released and incinerated — it was not being regulated as a “high-hazard flammable train,” federal officials told The Lever.

Documents show that when current transportation safety rules were first created, a federal agency sided with industry lobbyists and limited regulations governing the transport of hazardous compounds. The decision effectively exempted many trains hauling dangerous materials — including the one in Ohio — from the “high-hazard” classification and its more stringent safety requirements.

I don’t have a documented connection to 32N’s classification and PSR, but it seems pretty obvious. Here from 49 CFR § 174.310 – “Requirements for the operation of high-hazard flammable trains”:

(2) Speed restrictions. All trains are limited to a maximum speed of 50 mph. The train is further limited to a maximum speed of 40 mph while that train travels within the limits of high-threat urban areas (HTUAs) as defined in § 1580.3 of this title, unless all tank cars containing a Class 3 flammable liquid meet or exceed the DOT Specification 117 standards, the DOT Specification 117P performance standards, or the DOT Specification 117R retrofit standards provided in part 179, subpart D of this subchapter.

No railroad company dedicated to increasing average train speed by 10% through PSR would ever want to comply with that statute (which also imposes restrictions on the routes to be followed and allowable cars).

Railroad Owners

Here are the owners of the NS:

No doubt they are very happy with the Operating Ratio that NSR achieved through PSR. The chain of causality that begins with the hot box ends at their desks.

* * *

At least one railroad union was suggested nationalization. From Governing:

Last month, Railroad Workers United (RWU), an umbrella advocacy group for rail-industry union workers, did something it’s talked about doing for 10 years: It called for the sprawling network of rail infrastructure in North America to be publicly owned.

The reasons why, according to a resolution adopted by RWU’s international steering committee, include the railroad companies’ hostility to workers’ unions, steady reductions of workforce over the years, disinvestment in railway infrastructure and an obsessive focus on profits over service.

Other countries, including Japan, China and parts of Europe, have extensive, high-functioning rail networks that are publicly controlled, RWU members note. And they say public ownership of other transportation infrastructure in the U.S. shows there’s no inherent reason why railroad tracks should be private.

“I don’t think it’s too radical to think that this can be done in a different way,” Grooters says. “To create the railroads, there was a lot of public investment that made that happen. Right now that’s being liquidated.”

Of course, some of that public investment is being set on fire and rising into the sky, but what of that?


[1] Norfolk Southern, unsurprisingly, has form with toxic derailments:

In a similar incident on July 11, 2012, an eastbound Norfolk Southern train derailed 17 cars within the city limits of Columbus.

Three of the cars that derailed were carrying over 86,000 gallons of denatured ethanol. Once breached, the ethanol in the tank cars ignited, fueling a large fire.

The derailment led to the evacuation of over 100 people and cost over $1.2 million.

[2] This map shows that the derailment was near a stream called “Sulfur Run” which connects to the small “State Line” Lake; drone footage from Reuters seems to show a watercourse to the left of the derailment. So if the chemicals haven’t made their way into the water supply and the Ohio River, they will soon.

[3] Freight Waves includes some hilarious corporate Newspeak from NS COO Cindy Sanborn:

“We are taking a ground-up approach to the development of the plan in order to explore what is possible when we remove historical constraints and take a fresh look at our business.

Translating: You gutted work rules where you could, and cut head-count to the bone and beyond.

“We had some accelerated attrition in several core locations of our network that we had to really increase the pipeline for those locations. And that’s largely [oh yeah] in place.”

Translating: Your skilled workers couldn’t take the abuse anymore, so you outsourced what you could and replaced the rest with untrained newbies. But will no one think of the Operating Ratio?

[4] I highlighted brakes because Cory Doctorow and Lever News are both advocating improved braking systems. This is a good idea, and better brakes would have brought the train to a halt faster after the hot box was detected, but the proximate cause of the detailment, as of this writing, seems to have been a hot box, not the brakes.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Rip Van Winkle

    Not a good look how ‘our heroes the police’ slammed and cuffed NewsNation reporter Evan Lambert at the local news conference with the bumbling DeWine.

  2. JBird4049

    I am curious to see what the owners will do this time to kill any positive safety changes as to reduce to almost nothing any legal and financial blowback. I just know that teams of highly paid lawyers and lobbyists are already deployed to do this with the corruption deliberately engineered into the system helping them greatly.

    1. poopinator

      I’m more curious to see when the victims of these type of capitalist disasters begin to take extrajudicial measures against those who have destroyed their lives and communities. I can’t even imagine the rage that I would be feeling if this happened in my town and affected my neighbors and loved ones. At some point people are going to say, “Enough is enough”.

      1. LifelongLib

        Unfortunately, “those” people are usually anonymous and/or far away. Decades ago in “Working” Studs Terkel interviewed a man who explained why he got into a lot of fights. “You can’t sock a system, so I go to a bar and sock the guy next to me.” Rage more often gets expressed that way than against the people who are actually responsible.

        1. Jason Boxman

          Interestingly, from what I’ve read in The Proud Tower, the anarchists of the time (end of 19th century) were initially big on the Deed and quite a few monarchs were assassinated at the time. Doesn’t seem likely in this era, though, but not for want of targets.

          1. Kurtismayfield

            Last I checked the history book, there were a few presidents assassinated because of similar issues.

      2. Questa Nota

        Sad to see that all those institution owners represent pensions, 401k, IRA and other investments for people. Those people probably get a sanitized version of whatever operating problems arise, in a one-liner buried somewhere in small print in an ignored document.

        The board, in theory representing owners, looks to those institutions for guidance and approval. The individual shareholders get to vote their proxies, or not, and don’t get to provide input.

        Transparency would be helpful.
        Accountability, too.
        Bring agency to railroads, and some jail time.

    1. Samuel Conner

      Perhaps, in keeping with JBird4049’s thought, we should call this “the least public-spirited timeline”. There’s lots of intelligence, but it’s being used in ways that are harmful to most of the planet’s inhabitants.

  3. flora

    I am so so very sorry for the surrounding community. Railroad wrecks when carrying dangerous chemicals like chlorine are not a new event. (Back in the day, a railroad wreck in my childhood’s nearby small town caused that town to suffer a dangerous chlorine plume. Everyone had to be evacuated from the town for a few days. And several years later an unexplained locus of Multiple Sclerosis disease happened there in this small, tiny town, and in the children who’d lived there during and after the wreck. Did the chlorine contaminate the grade school building? Don’t know. Maybe a coincidence. One thing, though. Back then these sorts of dangerous chemical train crashes were rare. The railroad owners had an interest, a financial interest (thanks to regulations) in keeping the tracks and the lines safe, sound, and up to date. Not sure what I’m saying. Probably nothing.

    1. flora

      Adding: I expect most people today associate chlorine with laundry bleach or community water treatment plants getting rid of germs and such. How dangerous could chlorine really be? Well, in concentration it is deadly.

  4. Martin Oline

    Thank you for covering this tragedy that will be mostly ignored by the MSM. I know from working with plastics they can be volatile and dangerous. PVDF (Polyvinylidene Fluoride) was a plastic used at one plant and if there was an accident (ignition of pellets) the plant was evacuated due to the health hazard. It was very nasty stuff that immediately attacked your lungs. I can’t begin to imagine what the effects of this burn will be. The information about the making and breaking of cars due to their relative weight was new to me but having witnessed one derailment at moderate speed was enough to last me a lifetime.

  5. John R Moffett

    Modern capitalism at its finest. I expect House Republicans to rake the Biden administration and Buttigieg over the coals in hearings. It would be highly deserved. Of course it will just be Red Team – Blue Team squabbling, since the Republicans have no issues with the way the railroads are run now.

    1. Carolinian

      Not just modern. The history of American railroads is one of wild west capitalism at its finest. Vanderbilt and his ilk would freely bribe judges and legislators as part of their competitive games and their abuse of their customers, along with this corruption, a great part of our country’s political history.

      Anyhow great post so thanks Lambert. Norfolk Southern–once simply Southern–is our principle local line. I rode on their Southern Crescent once and it was one bumpy ride.

  6. Cristobal

    Once again, again, and again, Mayo Pete has demonstrated that his main qualification for his job was his sexual orientation. Identity Politics gone mad has costs – incompetent people asked to do real jobs.

    1. JBird4049

      I would not really put it on Identity Politics, but instead on payback for political loyalty. “You scratch my back and I scratch yours,” and as Pete Buttigieg has been a loyal tool, I guess they thought they were putting the fool into “safe” chair to keep warm.

    2. Rip Van Winkle

      Once upon a time about 25 years ago a Chicago pol actually got in front of (so to speak) to stop a rail shipment of waste napalm going from California through Chicago and Chicago west and south suburbs on way to a waste facility in East Chicago Indiana (near Gary). 23,000,000 pounds in 34,123 canisters left over from the Viet Nam War from Fallbrook Naval Ordinance Center near San Diego.

      His efforts were successful, The waste did not go through Chicago nor to Indiana. Perhaps to a waste facility in Arkansas.

      Pols’ name? Cong. Rod Blagojevich.

    3. Kurtismayfield

      He was bribed with a cabinet position for supporting Biden during the primary. It’s not hard to connect the dots.

  7. KLG

    A couple of short points. When I was 17-19, I worked in a chlor-alkali chemical plant (union, not as unusual in the South as one might think). This was not long after OSHA started to take effect. The old timers thought the rules were borderline silly but they eventually came around. We had the occasional chlorine gas leak, from which even the slowest workers found astonishing foot speed they did not think they had. Chlorine gas is indeed deadly in concentration. Work and safety rules were a lifesaver throughout the plant. Close-fitting respirators with activated charcoal filters and good seal were required equipment we kept on our person at all times inside the fence. They were worn when there was even a remote chance of exposure to a toxin. They worked. We changed the charcoal canisters regularly.

    Vinyl chloride had recently been in the news as a very potent carcinogen and we received safety advisories about it. From a current National Cancer Institute notice: “Vinyl chloride exposure is associated with an increased risk of a rare form of liver cancer (hepatic angiosarcoma), as well as primary liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma), brain and lung cancers, lymphoma, and leukemia.”

    As a worker in that plant, from which tank cars full of pressurized chlorine gas (~45 tons each IIRC) and caustic soda (liquid 50% sodium hydroxide, sometimes in tank trucks) were dispatched, I worked with and around railroad workers. One of the jobs of my “unskilled” labor gang was replacing rails at the loading station (90 pounds per foot, 30 feet each). The rail workers were serious, experienced, no nonsense, and very good at their jobs. Accidents (or their remote possibility) of any kind were not tolerated. A blue safety flag (Do NOT proceed beyond this point!) was knocked down one day and all hell broke loose. Someone was sent home for 3 days without pay. Each engine had at least 4 workers on the ground during loading and transport. This was also true of the larger freight trains as they transported their cargoes from origin to destination. Trains still had a caboose at the end, I think. Each job “on the railroad” was well-paid and highly sought after. Now? Norfolk Southern and CSX, which are the successors of the railroads servicing that chemical plant, are miserable and dangerous places to work, just like all the other major railroads. Of which there is now only a handful.

    Mayo Pete, where are you? Relax, my good man. That is strictly a rhetorical question.

    1. Tony Wikrent

      Very interesting, because you are describing the conditions of railroad employment and practice at a time in which there was active and competent regulation. And competent management, not a bunch of MBAs tweeking spread sheets for the enjoyment of distant absentee owners who couldn’t understand or care about the difference between a hot box and a draw bar. And, that is a time between a “wild west” era of no regulation as mentioned by Carolinian and our own era of deregulation.

      I believe that there is a subset of admiralty law in which owners can be held liable for maritime accidents in ways not common in today’s corporate law. Is this true? And is there a way to get the owners’ liability of admiralty law injected into corporate law?

  8. Michaelmas

    From the OP: This is what they call a “controlled release.”

    Or Airborne Toxic Event.

    “White Noise – Part II: “The Airborne Toxic Event”

    Jack finds Heinrich on the roof, looking through a pair of binoculars at a distant black cloud of smoke. Heinrich informs Jack that a train car has been derailed … Heinrich says the burning chemical in the air is Nyodene Derivative, or Nyodene D., a toxic substance that causes lumps in rats. The radio has already listed nausea, skin irritation, and sweaty palms as potential symptoms of exposure. Jack tries to reassure Heinrich that the smoke won’t come toward them … He sits down to pay the bills, even as rumors of increasing danger come in over the radio and phone. Sirens begin to blare through the neighborhood, but Jack declares that such things can’t happen in a town like theirs. New symptoms are reported on the radio, and the cloud is given a new name: the airborne toxic event … but Jack declares he is a college professor, not to mention the chair of a department, and can’t imagine someone like himself fleeing something like an airborne toxic event.

    1. JBird4049

      >>> but Jack declares he is a college professor, not to mention the chair of a department, and can’t imagine someone like himself fleeing something like an airborne toxic event.

      Why does this remind me of most of the Professional Managerial Class? Unthinking disasters like poisons from pollution or diseases from viruses offer no virtue for ignoring them. When officers are showing nonchalance under fire they show how one can operate doing a dangerous job. Doing what’s right for others is what gives one virtue. Don’t panic, but don’t ignore the tidal wave, either. Acceptance, not denial, while doing, but too many think ignoring, then lying about something is what’s good. Just like with Covid. It makes the ruling class’ job so much easier.

      1. Michaelmas

        Why does this remind me of most of the Professional Managerial Class?

        Well, for one thing, because ‘White Noise’ is a novel with an author, Don Delillo, and that was precisely one of his intended points.

        Not that DeLillo was wrong. That said, the novel’s protagonist, Jack Gladney, is also a pathetic, comical PMC type because the department he’s head of is in a field of critical theory he himself has pioneered, Hitler Studies, and it’s essentially a bad joke.

        Anyway, at this point we’re digressing from a real-world human tragedy. Back to our regular programming —

        1. JBird4049

          It has a connection to the day’s story. Shallow people, living empty existences, making foolish decisions to maintain the façade of respectability hiding their parasitic lives; this while lacking even the bare awareness to consciously be able to see this or find the true enjoyment and meaning available to the most menial laborer or prisoner.

          More, they turned into garbage all those gifts of opportunities to learn about, develop, and use their abilities that can afford them lives of meaning, joy, and even luxury if desired. Opportunities denied to most people, not because they are incapable, unworthy, or foolish, but because the society that they live in has decided that they are incapable, unworthy, or foolish.

          They are denied even the chance to fail, never mind succeeding, while The Right People too often are prevented from failing or flourishing because they can almost only succeed, but only in the approved channels or ways. Today’s society has predetermined who fails or succeeds. It labels “success” in only the most narrow, shallow, often meaningless ways to while steadily increasing widening and deepening the many channels of what is deemed failure.

          Society creates and enforces this by allocating all the resources that it has to those it has decided will succeed and increasingly denying even the limited resources needed just to live to those who are the supposed failures. Those who own the railroads are those who are supposed to succeed, which means they get all railroad’s resources using wealth extraction. Those who run the railroad are supposed to fail, which means that they are denied even rest or the time to maintain their trains. The people who live next to the railroad are also not The Good People, who cares about them?

          1. BeliTsari

            I’d been discussing the “wrong side of the tracks” with a poster, here, a few weeks ago. He’d forgotten being poor white trash in the Ohio Valley rust belt was a bit different. Holler folks looked down at folks red-lined in amongst mills, peaking plants, coal-fired Foster Wheeler power stations ethane crackers & gathering systems. Obese, brain damaged, churlish, abused the wrong substances, wrong religion, race, ethnicity… he was agin’ us? My city had tracks right up the 400-700′ ridges (31 funiculars, long ago) 1948 PCC cars up 12-16% flagstone streets. Every holler had freight or interurban ROW (The Broadway Limited went right by my house. Wrong side was a matter of opinion). Since I’ve inspected them, I can tell gas pipelines by sound of cycling across them, by smell of the opportunistic weeds (smells of green tea & Maypo). When a derailment started leaking lethal chemicals in what’s now the Busway East. I was working out by Mellon Institute. We knew nobody would tell us anything. It was Reagan’s Miracle; there were way too many of us poors in a rotten carcass of an industrial city, that made more steel than Italy, Japan & Germany, together. But, suddenly… there were 2.3 million jagoffs ALL on the wrong side of the tracks. Then, they pulled up all the tracks that didn’t take the coal, torn-down mills & aluminum out. So we did zombie flix. Now, it’s Hillary’s dilute bitumen, M1-A2 tanks. Gas Pipelines used to be made in McKeesport, Ambridge, Youngstown, Steelton & Lorain. Now, each well pad fracks 8 wells; 20K’ down & 2 miles out & the casing’s uninspected by 3rd party or PHMSA, neither are the collection systems. Last time I was home. A “best-in-class” 36″ ethane and a 30″ ethane line blew up within weeks of installation (due to “subsidance,” which we tried, rigorously to use in every sentence, for weeks). I used to drive right through that 2nd picture, down OH 170, to OH 14, from US Steel Lorain Tubular to Pittsburgh (after picking up pierogi & halushki from some sweet nuns, to bypass the Turnpike. I’d considered retiring, just south of here. But figured it too boring?

              1. Sushi

                Burning the spilled vinyl chloride resulted in the release of phosgene gas which is extremely toxic (0.1 PPM Threshold Limit Value). Phosgene was deployed as a chemical weapon in WWI and again by the Japanese military in China in WWII.

                At high concentrations phosgene smells like new mown hay but this odour may not be noticed. Symptoms may take hours to appear. When they do appear a fatality is the likely outcome. The toxicity results from damage to the pulmonary alveoli, and consequent disruption of the blood–air barrier, eventually causing pulmonary edema.

                These facts will not be reported to the public as it might distract them from the latest triangular balloon sighting and shoot-down. This information embargo will be ended once it can be claimed Putin caused the train wreck and all associated carnage.

                1. BeliTsari

                  That’s more LIKE it! I just kept thinking of the phosgene tanker episode of Babylon Berlin! I used to ride a loop up Unity, 165 & 170, rolling farm roads with a record shop (where I’d found a pristine “Safe As Milk” album, bumper sticker & all!) Frozen yogurt & Ukrainian church basement Haluski, polka music. I’d videotaped an interview of a dying EPA supervisor in her 40s. The tougher Eastern division starts at PA’s border, not the Ohio; so she had one of the most horribly toxic cesspools in ‘Murika & took the job seriously. This was when Martin Sheen would get arrested at WTI, while Hill’s firm filed charges for the Swiss (?) owners. There’s an abandoned, hillside interurban ROW we’d tried to develop for Rails To Trails & a lovely valley park.

  9. timbers

    Controlled release? The govmit and corporate propaganda need to come up with a new narrative. I suggest linking this to Chinese balloons dumping toxic chemicals upon America from the skies. Not a single brain cell in my head doubts a Rachel Maddow style campaign can get 60% of America to believe it.

  10. The Rev Kev

    I would not be surprised if they try to put the blame for this catastrophe on either the shunting yards where this train was made up or for the inspectors for giving it the OK to leave the yards. But will anything eventually change from this crash? I doubt it. So sooner or later you will have a crash that takes place while passing through a major city and where perhaps thousands of people will be killed and injured. Real safety is a long term investment that recognizes that the long term saving will more than make up for all the time, money and energy spent doing safety. Neoliberalism on the other hands tells managers that they have to shave percentage points off on every single aspect of a product or service and ‘do we need so many inspectors?’ But if I lived near that crash site, I would figure that now would be a good time to visit the folks in Maine or California or anywhere else but Ohio. And if it is upwind, so much the better.

    1. Michaelmas

      Rev kev: I would not be surprised if they try to put the blame for this catastrophe on … the inspectors for giving it the OK to leave the yards.

      Sure. And see KLG’s post further up the thread, because he once worked in an ancillary role to such a gig, and talks about how things were before the neoliberal era and how they are now.

    2. ThirtyOne

      Back in 2019, another derailment

      Analysis –Train Make-up: Train 1 consisted of 124 loads and 6 empties. The first car derailed was an empty car 61 from the head end (TILX 519541) behind the lead locomotives. Four of the train’s six empty cars were at line 60-63, and the DPU locomotive was between cars 73 and 74 with 6,211 trailing tons behind it. Of the 130 total cars, 32 cars were equipped with end-of-car cushion units placed in the train between line 58-95. Unlike standard rail cars with the draft gear and coupler, the end-of-cushion unit cars have at least 15 inches of travel on each end of the car creating additional slack and buff action.
      Although the train was predominantly loads and built-in compliance with NS rules, the existing train makeup along with the functionality of TO contributed to the derailment.
      Conclusion: FRA determined the existing train makeup with the excessive buffing and slack action was a contributing factor to the accident. (Contributing cause code H504)

  11. upstater

    Please note the journal box on the diagram is correct, but such a truck design is obsolete and almost certainly would not have been on the car with the flaming axle. Journal boxes were common on older cars prior to the use of roller bearings. The journal box had machined brass bearings and the box itself would contain cotton fibers soaked with oil to lubricate the axle and bearing; it is a friction bearing. IIRC, these were phased out in the late 70s. Roller bearings obviated the need for lubrication and the journal box, and a roller bearing is almost certainly what failed here. A visual inspection in a yard must likely would not indicate a problem.

    The term “hot box” harkens back to the journal box and refers to the instance where the roller or friction bearing fails and it heats up, potentially to a catastrophic failure.

    Note my comment in links this morning highlights the most damning aspect of this disaster, the failure of automated detection of the hotbox:

    It is obvious that the line side hotbox detectors in Salem were not working and maintenance was deferred. The crew did get a signal in East Palestine just before the derailment, but not miles before when the disaster could have been avoided.

    There can be little doubt that the inoperative automated hotbox detector was known by management. These things issue commands to every single train passing them and to the traffic controllers in central offices. Somebody in management must have blown off sending a crew to fix it. Back in the day, crews would be out there nearly immediately to fix it. Period.

    I think the issue of PSR is key here… it is a slash-and-burn Wall Street kool-aid philosophy to fire workers, remove redundancy and resilience, defer maintenance, run trains that are 3 miles long weighing 12-15,000 tons at slower speeds and reduce service levels to shippers. There is a good reason the railroad industry provides some of the highest industry group returns. Railroads are an oligopoly and for the most part are monopoly providers for almost all industrial shippers. What exists now would have made the Robber Barrons (Gould, Hill, Vanderbilts, Morgans, Stanford, etc) of 150 years ago ecstatic beyond belief.

    Where is Mayo Pete? Perhaps at a fundraiser for 2024 with railroad and airline lobbyists? How about Amtrak Joe?

    1. VietnamVet

      To make more money, necessary safety equipment that would have prevented the explosions on the Norfolk Southern was not operational. Society pays the costs of the damage and illness. Government that is staffed and working is necessary to assure that safety regulations are enforced. Neo-liberalism flushed this all down the drain. Americans are paying the actual costs for the increase in management bonuses and corporate stock values. This is not just transportation but across the board. There is no expertise left. This is why consultants cost more than the billions of dollars spent on the construction of the Madison Grand Central commuter rail line into NY City. Today, in the West all that matters is money not human life.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      I didn’t want to get into the history of trucks, so I used the picture that came to hand. You are correct that the techology has changed for the bearings. But the parts remain the same.

      At least as of 2005, hot boxes still happened for roller-bearing trucks and inspections needed to be performed, whether the train was in motion or in the yard. From the cutting room floor:

      crews are still required to look back from the head end and look from time to time at as much of the train as they can see… even with roller bearing cars…you still can get hot boxes…they arent as common as with friction bearing cars..but they still happen…but alot of times in todays railroading…. a hot box detector will get you..and most of the time its a stuck brake…or a hand brake that wasnt taken off….
      but today….should you get a hot box…you have to stop the train..and the conductor has to walk back and check the axel that was flagged by the DD..and has to check 20 axles on each side of it also…should their be nothing found..meaning the tempel stick donst melt on any of the checked axles… the train is alowed to proseed…but should a second DD get the car agin…it has to be set out regardless if nothing is found agin…and if on the first DD hit finds a hot bearing…. the conductor is to use his best jugment in determining if the car is safe to move… and if must go at walking speed to the place where it can be set out… ( a spear..siding..yard…what ever is the closest place it can be set out of the train at…)

      I believe the radio traffic on the YouTube video of an NS hotbox has to do with setting out the train.

      I find it hard to believe that even a roller bearing would show no signs of heating. The railroaders quoted also say that journals come under their inspection remit.

      1. marku52

        Nowadays all you have to do is point an IR temp gun at the wheel to know if it is running hot. They only cost $30 for a cheap one. I use it on trailer and tow vehicle wheels when towing. I want to know if I have a tire going down or a stuck brake.

  12. Alan Roxdale

    Is nationalization without clawbacks really the answer here. A straight nationalization in effect rewards the looting and pays for it with the public dime.

    Clawbacks for at least, say, the last 10 years of mismanagement at least gives real teeth to the threat of nationalization, rather than it just ending up as a golden parachute backstop.

  13. Screwball

    Great work Lambert, great article.

    A few things to add. I grew up in a small town a little bigger than this with three main lines, one of which crossed the other two. They serviced many of the local factories who had a spur to their business. As a kid the trains caught our attention, so we watched them all the time. We would put pennies on the track to get them smashed – if we could find them after – nothing like playing on railroad tracks.

    Us kids got to be buddies with the guys who worked there. There was a two story tower where they would move the track switches, turn on signals, and give messages to the trains as they went by. The first floor was for the track workers. Everything was done by humans, at least at this location. There was a row of four foot tall levers they would move in and out to change a track switch, or turn on a signal. All mechanical. primitive stuff.

    They had a radio so they could talk to the next tower in each direction. When the train passed they would record a time, then notify the next tower the train was coming to the next tower, maybe 40-50 mile away. I think this was a dedicated wire line. They could not talk directly to the train. If they had to tell them something, they would write it on a particular form and hand it off to the train as it passed by. They had a dictionary of procedures and rules to make sure nothing bad happened.

    They also used what they called “track circuits” which, when tripped by the train, set off an alarm in the tower so they knew when to turn the traffic gates on. Safety was paramount. Ironically, in my 60+ years, there have been at least 3, and maybe 4 derailments in my lifetime. Two very big ones, only 3 blocks from my house. Lucky for us, these were coal trains, so just a big mess, and even more lucky nobody got hurt. One almost took out the tower as it was only a small distance from the trains.

    The tower I got to know so well was torn down probably 25 years ago. The crossing line was taken out, then everything that can be automated got automated. GPS, and other wireless connectivity. No more cabooses. Of course – less people. That was one of the first tells.

    In this case, it sounds like a “hot box” was the culprit. As kids, waiting on our pennies to be turned into a trinket we could impress our girlfriend with, I remember seeing the hot boxes go by. Enough heat they would smoke. Sometimes they would tie up, so the wheels would drag and then get a flat spot. Then the flat spot hits a missing chunk of track – and boom – you have a derailment.

    Given today’s technology, why isn’t there safety requirements to have sensors on these huge hunks of steel so they can identify potential problems? Without doing the work, I’m guessing I could find the electronic hardware to put thermocouples, accelerometers, strain gauges, or whatever other monitoring device I want on a train car in the critical places. Once collected, sent to the mothership and an alarm goes off.

    With that capability, and I see no reason why we couldn’t, this wouldn’t have happened. Unless a bearing has a quick catastrophic failure, a hot box failure would be evident long before this.

    And after watching 30+ car derailments get cleaned up, they make a really big mess, which is really a sobering sight knowing that behemoth (how many tons above I don’t remember) was just cruising through your town at 40 mph. And they do, I’ve drove beside them just to check.

    Danger, danger, Will Robinson!

    1. Screwball

      Adding for record; I was wondering what the latest news was on this tragedy. So, just for fun, I went to CNN. The headlines were all about the Super Bowl, balloons, picture of the Pentagon, and even an article on best photos of the Super Bowl. Unless I missed it, I couldn’t find anything about this tragedy.

      Incredible, just incredible.

      I don’t even want to speculate why. I don’t know what kind of country I live in anymore.

      1. Screwball

        I searched Cleveland TV and newspapers, and found nothing, but did find this from Youngstown, not far away.

        3 additional chemicals discovered on East Palestine train derailment


        “I was surprised when they quickly told the people they can go back home, but then said if they feel like they want their homes tested they can have them tested. I would’ve far rather they did all the testing,” Caggiano said.

        Soooooo, I guess we’re all good.

        1. JustTheFacts

          From the article: If you live near the accident, GET A HEALTH CHECKUP to serve as a baseline against future claims against the railroad (so they can’t tell you it was a prior condition).

        2. Sushi

          From your link:

          Breshears said her chickens were alive and well on Monday.

          She believes that the smell following the detonation of the train carrying chemicals that derailed in East Palestine is to blame for her birds’ sudden death.

          “My video camera footage shows my chickens were perfectly fine before they started this burn, and as soon as they started the burn, my chickens slowed down and they died,” she said.

          The death of animals in the vicinity of a chemical fire involving polyvinyl choride is a known inidcation of toxic gas presence. Smaller creatures reach the Threshold limit value − ceiling limit (TLV-C) before larger creatures.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > why isn’t there safety requirements to have sensors on these huge hunks of steel so they can identify potential problems?

      They do have sensors. But railroading is very hard on all forms of equipment. I doubt that the need to inspect cars will go away any time soon. In any case “Wait ’til after the journal is smoking hot” seems like…. well, capitalism.

  14. LawnDart

    I’ve often wondered what makes railroad workers (amongst workers of differing trades) stay on. Yeah, difficult coming up with generalizations that are not too sweeping. I came across this, and while seemingly sensible in certain professional roles, sometimes difficult tasks are the majority of tasks, or there’s too few workers available for just small bites of a particular sandwich:

    Overloading workers with too many difficult tasks in a row makes them more likely to quit, study finds

    In the largest field study of its kind, Schweitzer and his colleagues found that people are far more likely to quit when given too many difficult assignments in a row, compared with a workflow that is balanced out with easier tasks. Breaking up long streaks of challenging assignments may be one of the simplest ways that managers can reduce employee burnout and boost retention.

  15. spud

    they don’t care. elites in this country never pay a price for their follies. wanna find out who the donors are that got biden and the democrats to fold, drag the democrats and republicans into a public forum to show us where the bodies are buried, that is the advisors and donors.

  16. The Rev Kev

    Mention has been made of that reporter that was arrested for the crime of uhhh, reporting I guess. Well there is a new twist. It seems that just before he was arrested, he was assaulted by a National Guardsman. And not just any National Guardsman but the actual head of Ohio’s National Guard. He tried to make up a bs story about how he ‘instinctively put my hands on his chest to keep him from bumping into me’ but the whole incident was on video which showed this jerk pushing that reporter back on purpose after threatening him. And now this guy is coming under scrutiny-

  17. eg

    Yet another demonstration of how “spreadsheet land” does not map onto “real resource” land in systemically pernicious ways.

    But hey, it’s only fly-over country anyway, amirite?

  18. Matthew G. Saroff

    The NOTAMS are not about air safety here, they are about keeping news choppers away from the site.

  19. Puddin Tang

    This is scary to say the least. Especially when you think that NS is only 1 Class one RR in the Country, and there are SEVERAL others (class 1’s) that have also adopted “PSR” which in all reality is nothing more than a “Money Grab”.

  20. Gregory Etchason

    Reagan’s lament to Neoliberalism, “we can only regulate to the point of economic prudence. The reality is some people will die.”

  21. Tom Luikens "Trainpacer"


    The illustration of “a truck” near the beginning of the article is almost certainly erroneous ( I write “almost certainly” because I have not personally inspected the actual freight car truck, or the wreck remains), because the “journal” portrayed is an ancient technology friction bearing journal that would not be installed on a modern freight train tank car in service carrying a hazardous cargo. The correct journal would for certain be a “roller bearing” journal. It should not be hard to locate and substitute a correct illustration.
    Because the author focuses attention on the journal as the critical point of failure, but illustrates the wrong kind of journal, which betrays an unfamiliarity with the technology issue and the installed equipment, the quality of the argument following that glaring mistake is dubious.

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