Off the Rails

How government corruption caused a railway accident.


Ria Gupta

A political cartoon depicting the destruction that will occur if railroad safety is left in the hands of private businesses.

On Feb. 3, 2023, in East Palestine, Ohio, a tragic railway accident occurred. A train containing radioactive material derailed, spilling the dangerous chemical vinyl chloride. All people within a one-mile radius of the spill were told to stay in place, while those further away were told to evacuate. 

For days, the site of the train wreck burned and released vinyl chloride. Federal agents in the area conducting health surveys are currently reporting residents feeling sick. Issues the locals have include rashes, nausea, headaches and sore throats, all suspected to be caused by the radiation from the chemicals in the train. CNN posted an article with findings from an independent reporter that showed East Palestine was still unsafe when residents returned after the initial evacuation. Government officials stated it was safe for residents despite the fact that independent researchers found multiple pollutants still in the air. In an interview with The New York Post, East Palestine resident Wade Lovett detailed his side effects from the incident:

“‘Doctors say I definitely have the chemicals in me but there’s no one in town who can run the toxicological tests to find out which ones they are,’” Lovett, 40, an auto detailer, said in an extremely high-pitched voice. ‘My voice sounds like Mickey Mouse. My normal voice is low. It’s hard to breathe, especially at night. My chest hurts so much at night I feel like I’m drowning. I cough up phlegm a lot. I lost my job because the doctor won’t release me to go to work.’”

Many politicians are also visiting East Palestine, including former President Donald Trump, who visited a McDonald’s and showed solidarity with the locals. Trump assured residents that better times would come, and claimed that if he was president this would’ve never happened. He also handed out merchandise supporting his 2024 Presidential Campaign. President Biden has not yet visited East Palestine, but Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has visited and has reassured locals the situation would be dealt with swiftly.

The reason for the wreck was a wheel bearing failure. A train’s wheel bearings are supposed to be changed every 100,000 miles. Every year, the average train travels 140,000 miles, meaning that wheel bearings should be changed every eight months. This routine maintenance was neglected, resulting in the derailing. However, there were many other events prior to this that also led to the wreckage occurring. 

Years before the disaster, allies of the railway industry consistently blocked safety regulations for rail workers. One attempt to do so was a bill proposed by John Thune, South Dakota’s Republican Senator, that was designed to delay the implementation of electronically controlled brakes, which could have prevented the tragedy.

Thune said those wanting to implement these brakes should “Get the facts, and then figure out what, if anything, needs to be changed.”

Thune argued that the technology was untested and shouldn’t be used, despite the fact that they were well-tested. 

Researchers from the Government Accountability Office found that electric brakes on vehicles can reduce the number of cars that puncture in a derailment by 20 percent. Despite this, railway companies didn’t want to install the brakes because their installation would be costly, even though this decision was at the expense of public health. 

In December 2022, President Biden signed Resolution 290-137, which blocked an American rail strike. This strike was created with the goal to expand the quality of workers’ lives and safety through more sick days and time off. It had the potential to wreck the economy by creating a lack of workers running transportation systems, but, instead of listening to the workers’ demands, the government ignored them and disregarded their concerns.

The constant efforts of corporations wanting to make more profit only hurts people. Without protection from federal and state governments, people will be at the expense of corporate interests. If making a town subject to a toxic chemical spill is what needs to happen to keep prices for a company low, then that is what will happen. 

The tragic incident in East Palestine shows what this country is worst at, but it also shows us a path forward. The only way for our society to be safe is for more government regulations to be put in place, especially regulations for worker safety. More precautions should be implemented to protect people from toxic chemicals. Currently, a bipartisan group of legislators is proposing stricter rules for the Department of Transportation. The legislators aim to make transportation corporations more directly regulated by the government and set new guidelines for vehicle safety. 

If these regulations were enforced better before the accident, it is likely that the wheel bearing failure that caused this would not have happened. A focus on safety for the transportation of toxic materials will go an incredibly long way in ensuring accidents like this do not happen again. The United States will become a better place, provided the government acts appropriately.