East Palestine Train Derailment Explained

East Palestine Train Derailment Explained

An overview of the 2023 Ohio train derailment.
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On the evening of Friday, February 3, 2023, 38 of 149 cars of a Norfolk Southern Railway freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Five of the derailed cars were carrying vinyl chloride, a hazardous material that built up pressure in the resulting fires, eventually leading Norfolk Southern to vent and burn it in a bid to prevent an explosion. The ensuing fireball and cloud brought the normally unseen process of hazardous cargo transportation into a single chilling view, and the event became a lightning rod of controversy over rail industry regulations, federal involvement in chemical spills, and much more.

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Video by Grady Hillhouse
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Production Assistance from Josh Lorenz
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36 Responses

  1. Caelum Valdovinos says:

    Hi! Railroader here! A few notes about defect detectors

    1. Defect detectors do not tell you the temperature of your axles. If the temperatures are within accepted boundaries, you get this message: “Train _, Milepost _. Axles_. No defect. No defect.” If you do have an overheated bearing, you do get this message: “Train _. Milepost _. Axles _. Defect axle _. Defect axle _. Stop your train. Stop your train.” Again, you’re not given the specifics of the nature of the defect just that you do have an issue that requires visual inspection. Some do also note speed, but it’s up to the railroad.

    2. Defect detectors are self-isolated. They do not transmit data from one detector to another nor do they transmit it to a centralized computer system. The stored information is usually self-wiped up and until an issue arises like an overheated bearing or dragged axle. At that point, MOW crews will come in and grab the data.

    3. When I mentioned a train requiring a visual inspection, that duty falls squarely on the conductor. Since the 1990’s, America’s railroads have been operated solely by two guys: the engineer and conductor. By law, the engineer has to stay with his train to monitor the air brakes to make sure they don’t accidentally release which has happened more often than you think. This means that the conductor has to walk the length of the train alone until he finds the problem and find a way to solve it by themself.

    • armor power says:

      i feel like just having more detectors would be good enough like 20 miles is a pretty good size distance for a lot to happen if a defect happens right after a detector and is bad enough it wont even make it to the next one since metal on metal can heat up very fast with friction like melting steal in minutes fast. i would say every 5 miles but we all know the goverment and railroad companys wont do that because that doesnt make them money. this is the us if it doesnt involve money they dont care sad but its very true

    • TrollinMyImp says:

      ​@rixille it’s honestly not needed. There’s other people watching this stuff, the dispatcher will alert them if it’s needed. People don’t comprehend how uncommon these issues are anymore.

    • TrollinMyImp says:

      I’m not reading through all the comments, but 24 year carman here. Newer detectors DO transmit data. That’s how they give trending reports. Ours will send it to the mechanical desk and automatically create a report in our TCIS system.

    • Fyre Lorde says:

      Kinda sounds like there should be bigger crews for the bigger trains. And I think that there was a strike that mentioned that too

  2. KJarni says:

    Not too long after this incident, another train derailed right behind my uncle’s house here in Detroit. He’s safe and the tankers carrying hazardous materials didn’t spill, but he said the sound itself scared the hell out of him.

    I grew up watching the same train every time it passed, and me and my mum would sometimes put pennies on the tracks to squish them, so I have a deep seated appreciation for our trains here. They have an awesome impact and I hate seeing people demonize them. I’d much rather our transport be in trains than on the road, and I hope it stays that way for safety and price. Train derailment is bad, and I hope things will get updated, but I still fully support our rails.

    Still to this day, whenever I get the chance, I always wave at the train drivers. Most of the times they’ll wave back or honk the horn, but they still look confused as to why some random dude is waving.

    Thanks for this video, I really appreciate your down to earth take on it, and hopefully this impacts people’s opinions of our rails positively. All the news ever does is fear mongering and finger pointing, yours is so much better, too bad you can’t be broadcasted!

    • KW says:

      This derailment had a devastating effect, and yet the long term toll is still going to be less than a single year of deaths from cars.

    • Google Google says:

      Trains is much better than road transportation yes… But the lack of maintenance and management aiming to high profits cutting costs is the big problem here and all over…

  3. Radioactiveslime says:

    Reminds me of the Lac-Megantic derailment in Quebec, Canada back in 2013. Over 40 lives lost and a huge swath of real estate was obliterated. Very sad.
    It’s an interesting read for anyone into in disaster forensics.

    • John Riga says:

      With one important difference, the lac Megantic derailment was crude oil.
      When vinyl chloride is open combusted, the by products are horrifying because the fire never gets hot enough to combust everything.
      This is a slow motion mass casualty event😢

    • Lorne Given says:

      Lots of regulations changed from that

    • Drew Northup says:

      When people groused about the vent & burn of the recent incident Lac-Megantic is what I brought up to explain why an overpressure is not to be tempted.

    • onyxpartitian says:

      ​@Philippe CloutierI know CN changed the handbrake requirement rules because of it. Could be FRA wide but they explain what happened and how to avoid it again to every new hire.

    • Philippe Cloutier says:

      in July this year it will be the 10th anniversary of Mégantic derailment , and guess what … nothing change. Good luck to East Palestine citizens

  4. Paul S Rohrbaugh says:

    I worked for Frito-Lay for years. Every single day we got two rail cars of corn products and three rail cars of oil. For comparison, potatos took 10 – 15 full trucks per day.

    I can’t exactly quantity the benefits of rail, but it took hundreds of trucks off the road, and was a huge cost savings.

    • Yvolve says:

      @Eric The Epic That’s what I meant: it doesn’t matter if it happens at 2mph or 200mph. A dropped wheel is a huge issue and a sign of much bigger problems.

      Also, the damage is massive, even at slow speed. It is likely to drag the wheel along the sleepers, brackets and through the rock layer.

    • Franklin Allen says:

      ​@Conservator one of my cousins works for a rail car maintenance contractor that works mainly for CSX.
      His primary job is cleaning and relabeling tankers.
      They are as identical on the inside as they are on the outside. Just a large tank with some baffles to arrest the movement of the fluid.
      There are a few rules with labeling and usage. You can never label a tank for food grade use if it has ever been used for non-food grade transport.
      The only way to know what’s in a tank is the labeling painted on it, on the standard black tank that label is done in bright yellow.

    • Becka Reus says:

      The STB’s current definition of a Class I railroad was set in 1992, that being any carrier earning annual revenue greater than $250 million. <-- stolen from Wiki Also as of this week there is only 6 class 1s. CP and KCS merger went into effect, leave it these Railroads: NS, CSX, UP, BNSF, CN, CPKC

    • Katie Barber says:

      yeah but making sure communities are safe will reduce their profits :-). America is absolutely glad and willing to sacrifice human lives in order to maintain record profits for these corporations

  5. Ian says:

    Production levels are flying man, great mic placement, great lighting, looking clean 👌🏼

    Also, awesome content!

  6. chris thorney says:

    its safer by 8x, but what makes it look worse on the surface is that the accidents are so huge, its like 15 truck accidents all at once in the same spot. so at surface level it seems worse when an accident does happen here and there, but you just cannot ignore just how much gets moved everyday without incident

    • chris thorney says:

      @Katie Barber who is trying to portray this as not harmful? i have not seen anyone try to claim it wasnt harmful personally all i have seen is people talk about how harmful it is

    • Aaron Leverton says:

      @Rodney Pidcock That depends on where you live. Many countries still own the rails publicly and maintain them on the public purse precisely because of safety because they’ve witnessed economic “rationalists” privatise theirs and the utter decimation of previously public infrastructure that follows.

    • Aaron Leverton says:

      @AmericanKid778 Oh, what’s this? “Extremely High Voltage?” Well, I don’t need safety gloves because I’m Homer Si…

    • Katie Barber says:

      I don’t think anyone is trying to say moving things by rail is unsafe. the problem is that they are trying to portray this objectively terrible dangerous accident that is harming the surrounding people and environment, as not harmful.

    • Stephen Cavilia says:

      It may be the size of 15 truck crashes, but 15000 of those trucks have probably crashed between this and the last rail accident of the same scale.

  7. Paul Kinzer says:

    My dad worked for the Milwaukee Road from the 1950s into the 1960s. I had a foster brother who worked for another RR in the late 1970s. These jobs were considered some of the best out there, with fantastic benefits and strong unions. Even before this tragedy, railroads had been in the news because of the pending strike railroad workers were threatening before the last election. For political reasons, the strike was stopped. But when I would read about the things the workers were asking for, I was pretty shocked at how things have changed. As in so many other industries, short term benefits for shareholders has become, it seems, the only concern. Fewer workers doing more work, with fewer benefits. Mergers that lead to even more power and profit for a small number of people. Slashing of investment in rail maintenance and rolling stock (which would be a great topic for another video). Knowing all of this made a disaster like this much more likely, if not inevitable.

    Is this just an example of the price we need to pay for the materials that railroads carry? I sure don’t think so. Again like many other industries, railroads have been very profitable over the past several years. Some of that profit needs to be put into making sure they are safer. From everything I understand, the investments that have been delayed will absolutely have to be made eventually. It’s my belief that regulators need to do much more to get them done sooner than later.

    • David Taylor says:

      @Macree Yes, it’s a concern that our politicians seem to look at the US way of doing things with admiration rather than dismay. It won’t be too long before we’ll all be selling our houses (if we have one) to pay for a visit to the hospital. Our private health ‘care’ is already rapacious and not at all in favour of the person paying the monthly bills. And selling off the electricity grid and telecoms has really worked out well. If there’s a problem with an NBN connection or an electricity meter, good luck getting that sorted out – so many different organisations involved who won’t talk to you or each other that even when you know exactly what’s wrong and how to fix it, you can’t find anyone who’ll actually take responsibility and do it without getting the ombudsman involved.

    • Macree says:

      To me, this is the poster child result of privatising critical services. Same thing has happened here in Australia, telecommunications privatised, toll roads privatised, power privatised, hospitals privatised, primary resources privatised.
      All lead to net loss to community, as dramatic skeletonisation of workforce to save cost, reduced maintenance to save cost, shipping in cheap labour to save cost, hiding profit offshore to save cost on tax.

      The worst part is, the donkeys in government don’t even get near to market value for the assets, so when someone with half a brain tries to buy them back it costs 200, 500, 1500% more 😡😡

    • Aaron Leverton says:

      @Кирилл Чичета Move the Board, the CEO and COO into East Palestine and see how fast things can progress. Regulators can only enforce the minimum the law demands.

  8. KJ Gaming says:

    There was a large railroad tanker explosion in my Hometown of Kingman, Arizona in 1973 claiming the lives of 11 firefighters, one rail worker, and one Arizona State Trooper. This massive propane explosion ushered in many safety changes for the railroad industry and the propane industry. I agree that this event will also help to create new policies and procedures. Great video Grady!

  9. Alexrocksdude says:

    Really cool seeing Distant Signal featured here! He’s got lots of train related explainer type videos if anyone is interested and the clip featured is from a great explainer of how the defect detectors work.

    • Make It With Calvin says:

      Danny does some A+ railfanning videos and videos on how the various RR equipment works too.

    • Rod Challis says:

      I saw conditions on a RR track that had me wondering just how safe it was, but I knew nothing about such things. In searching, I came across “ccrx 6700” on youtube. He helps maintain an isolated rail line that serves a coal mine. He’s my go to for learning about track maintenance, rail defects, etc.

    • Cedric Rummell says:

      I thought that detector stuff was from his video about them.

  10. loanstowalruses says:

    Thanks for doing this! I’d love to see more series done on transport infrastructure if you end up running out of other great ideas for the channel.

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