TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – Police Chief Jason Wright feared the worst as he rushed to the scene of a freight train derailment in Michigan's Van Buren Township, mindful of a fiery rail crash this month in Ohio that led to evacuations and a toxic chemical release.
Instead, the situation a half-hour's drive west of Detroit was far less grim: 28 of 134 cars in a Norfolk Southern train had gone at least partially off the track Thursday with a couple overturned and several others upright but knocked sideways. No one was injured and nothing appeared to have spilled. The lone car carrying hazardous materials wasn't affected.
“We couldn't believe how lucky we were, considering the awful situation over there in Ohio,” Wright said Friday.
About 50 train cars, including 10 carrying hazardous materials, derailed Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio. Vinyl chloride later was released into the air from five of them before crews ignited it to get rid of the highly flammable chemicals in a controlled way, creating a dark plume of smoke.
Residents from nearby neighborhoods in Ohio and Pennsylvania were evacuated because of health risks from the fumes. They later were allowed to return but many say they've experienced headaches and eye irritations and worry about long-term effects.
The starkly contrasting outcomes of similar incidents involving the same rail company in next-door states might appear a matter of fate. But many factors determine the severity of rail crashes, experts said, including how fast a train is going, what kind of cargo it carries and the reason it jumps the tracks.
The cause of neither derailment has been determined, Norfolk Southern spokesman Connor Spielmaker said. Crews had gotten two cars back on the track in Michigan and were working on others, he said.
Officials say a mechanical issue with a car axle — perhaps from an overheated wheel bearing — is suspected in the Ohio crash.
“That's one of those classes of accidents that happen basically with no warning — when the train is moving at normal operating speeds, there's no notice to the crew, no opportunity to slow the train down or reduce the energy associated with derailments,” said Allan Zarembski, a University of Delaware railroad engineering professor. When axles break at high speed, he said, “it's a pretty significant event.”
A crash like the one in Ohio is rare, he said. When they happen, the consequences can be catastrophic. Still, most derailments are “fender benders” that happen in rail yards and do little if any damage, Zarembski said.
The fact that two Norfolk Southern trains would go off the rails within a couple of weeks is hardly surprising, given that the company has about 20,000 miles of track — “as much track as all of England,” he said.
“It's not a good thing, but it's not an ‘oh my god, there's something horribly wrong' thing,” he said. “There's nothing that says there's been a major drop in safety. It just means we're following the statistical pattern.”
The American Society of Civil Engineers gave railroads a grade of “B” in its most recent “report card” on U.S. infrastructure — better than roads and aviation, which were rated at just above failing.
There were more than 12,400 train derailments in the U.S. over the past decade, or more than 1,200 annually, according to Federal Railroad Administration data based on reports submitted by railroads.
Those accidents combined derailed or damaged about 6,600 tank cars carrying hazardous materials — including 348 cars that released their contents — and prompted evacuations involving more than 18,600 people, according to FRA data.
Total damages reported by railroads from derailments of trains hauling hazardous materials exceeded $930 million over the decade, the accident reports show.
U.S. rail accidents from all causes – from derailments to malfunctioning equipment — released more than 5 million gallons of hazardous materials since 2011, according to data collected by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The bulk of what spilled was crude oil, but the accidents also included fuels such as gasoline and ethanol and a wide range of other chemicals.
The danger to nearby communities from derailments rises significantly any time hazardous solids, liquids or compressed gas are involved, said Bob Chipevich, a former investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.
Manufacturing cars in keeping with the newest standards — thicker steel walls, added protections at either end and in valve areas — can help them stay intact even if overturned, he said. But communities where hazardous materials rail cars regularly pass through should be vigilant, he added.
“Certainly if I lived along a track, I'd insist that the railroad maintain that track in very good condition," Chipevich said. “Poor track conditions are a significant cause for trail derailments.”
Environmental groups called for reinstating a regulation dropped by the Trump administration in 2018 that had required trains to switch to electronic braking from the air-brake systems long used.
“Reliance on century-old braking technology is unacceptably negligent,” said Sean Dixon, executive director at Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit organization concerned with protecting the waterways of the Puget Sound.
Whatever precautions are imposed on the industry, communities should prepare emergency responders to deal with hazardous material releases from derailed trains, Chipevich said.
Wright, the Michigan police chief, said he and colleagues have done “tabletop exercises” on chemical spills and potential risks to neighborhoods and schools.
“To me, it's no different than semi-trucks hauling hazardous stuff down our roads and highways,” he said. “It's around us all the time. You try to plan for the worst and do the best you can when it happens.”
Contributing to this story were Associated Press writers Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana, and Josh Funk in Omaha.