AFPM ’23: Derailments bring concerns about US rail service, safety to forefront

Adam Yanelli


HOUSTON (ICIS)–The US chemicals industry continues to urge federal regulators to address its concerns about the quality of railroad service, and while the recent derailment in Ohio did little to disrupt markets, the fallout has likely placed renewed emphasis on safety and performance.

Despite the issues with rail, overall supply chain constraints have largely eased, which is good news for the industry heading into this year’s International Petrochemical Conference (IPC).

Following a hearing on 9 March by the US Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works spurred by the Norfolk Southern (NS) train derailment, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) said it shares the committee’s goal to advance safety and protect public health and the environment, and that “we should carefully examine the factors that contributed to this derailment and other rail incidents”.

The ACC said railroads are vital to the industry and that rail transportation is the safest mode for shipping chemicals over land.

“Chemical manufacturers own, or lease, railcars used to ship our products, including tank cars equipped with special safety features to help prevent a release during a derailment,” the ACC said. “Shippers have made significant investments in recent years to upgrade their tank car fleets and will continue to do so.”

Following the derailment, a group of senators has authored bipartisan legislation aimed at improving rail safety and reliability.

The Railway Safety Act of 2023 would take several key steps to improve rail safety protocols, such as enhancing safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials, establishing requirements for wayside defect detectors, creating a permanent requirement for railroads to operate with at least two-person crews, increasing fines for wrongdoing committed by rail carriers and more.

But neither regulators nor the rail companies are waiting for a legislative fix.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) opened a special investigation into the safety practices and culture at NS on 7 March, based on five incidents since 2021, three of which involved the death of NS employees.

“The continued safe operations of Norfolk Southern is vital to the US,” the NTSB said. “The NTSB is concerned that several organisational factors may be involved in the accidents, including safety culture.”

NS came out with its own six-point plan that it says immediately enhances the safety of its operations.

NS said it will immediately begin the following initiatives:

  • Enhance the hot bearing detector network
  • Pilot next-generation hot bearing detectors
  • Work with industry on practices for hot bearing detectors
  • Deploy more acoustic bearing detectors
  • Accelerate its Digital Train Inspection programme
  • Support a strong safety culture

“We are eager to help drive that effort and we are not waiting to take action,” NS President and CEO Alan H Shaw said.

The railroad also announced that it is joining the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA’s) Confidential Close Call Reporting System, which it said, “marks another step we are taking to further our commitment to safety at Norfolk Southern and throughout our industry”.

The chemicals industry has not been silent in its assessment of the level of service provided by the nation’s Class 1 railroads.

In June 2021, the ACC asked the US Surface Transportation Board (STB) – the federal regulator that oversees US railroads – to address the service issues that its members highlighted as persistent issues plaguing the shipment of chemicals.

During a hearing in April 2022, the STB ordered Union Pacific (UP), BNSF, CSX and NS to correct deficiencies in their rail service recovery plans and resubmit to the board along with additional information on actions to improve service and communication with customers.

In November, the STB extended its order requiring temporary reporting on service data for all Class I carriers for six months, through May 2023, saying that the carriers in some instances were meeting some of their six-month targets for service improvement, and many key performance indicators were trending in a positive direction.

“However, the data continue to validate the anecdotal information that continues to be reported to the board regarding significant service issues,” the STB said.

Key performance indicators, such as velocity, terminal dwell, first-mile/last-mile service (ie, industry spot and pull), operating inventory and trip plan compliance show that railroad operations remain challenged generally, and particularly when compared to pre-pandemic 2019 levels, the STB said.

The STB has made the weekly updates available on its website.

A look at the data from the most recent week shows average train speed, reported on a miles/hour basis, ranging from a low of 20.92 miles/hour (NS) to a high of 27 miles/hour (CSX).

In the US, chemical railcar loadings represent about 20% of chemical transportation by tonnage, with trucks, barges and pipelines carrying the rest.

Hosted by the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), the IPC takes place on 26-28 March in San Antonio, Texas.

Focus article by Adam Yanelli


ICIS Premium news service

The subscription platform provides access to our full range of breaking news and analysis

Contact us now to find out more

Speak with ICIS

Now, more than ever, dynamic insights are key to navigating complex, volatile commodity markets. Access to expert insights on the latest industry developments and tracking market changes are vital in making sustainable business decisions.

Want to learn about how we can work together to bring you actionable insight and support your business decisions?

Need Help?

Need Help?