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Train derailments are not uncommon. How do we change that?


We've been hearing for a couple of weeks about the train derailment and chemical fire in East Palestine, Ohio. A number of residents were forced to evacuate after state officials let the company conduct a controlled burn, meaning they deliberately burned off chemicals to try to prevent an even more damaging explosion. But as frightening as the whole situation has been for those residents, it turns out it's fairly common, or at least it's not uncommon. More than a thousand trains derail every year. Rebecca Burns is a reporter for the media startup The Lever that was founded by former Bernie Sanders speechwriter David Sirota, and she co-authored an op-ed in The New York Times this week where they argued it doesn't have to be this way. And Rebecca Burns is with us now. Thanks so much for joining us.

REBECCA BURNS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So let's start with the derailment in East Palestine. The company that owns the train intentionally burned off some of the substances the train was carrying, and that includes vinyl chloride. Chronic exposure has been associated with cancer, according to the EPA. Now, I know your main focus is why does this keep happening, but based on what you've learned so far, was burning off the substances the right thing to do?

BURNS: Right. So there are certainly some considerable concerns about the long-term health effects of exposure to vinyl chloride. It has a long latency period before people who are exposed to it may start to have respiratory issues. It's linked to several serious kinds of cancer. What we do know is in a previous accident in 2012 in New Jersey, when thousands of tons of vinyl chloride were spilled, there are reports of residents in that area suffering long-term health effects.

MARTIN: So you pointed out in your piece that the number of train derailments has actually gone down since the 1970s, but there are still, you know, hundreds each year. And you also say that the cost has gone up. What do you mean by that? I mean, is it that the number of chemical leaks has gone up since the 1970s?

BURNS: Right. Well, so the number of total derailments has gone down since the '70s, but the number of accidents per mile has actually increased. And the damage from derailments, specifically carrying hazardous chemicals, has also been increasing over the last seven years. So one of the issues here is we have these longer and heavier trains being staffed by smaller and smaller crews, and so the accidents, when they do occur, can be quite serious.

MARTIN: So what would make a difference? I mean, one of the things you point out in your piece is that the technology - say, the brake technology - is actually fairly ancient. What are some of the things that would bring that number down?

BURNS: So most of the nation's freight trains are running using braking technology that was developed during the Civil War era - compressed air brakes that stop train cars one by one, sort of like a giant slinky. So a rule would have required upgrades to electronically controlled braking systems that have faster stop times. I want to say in addition to, you know, the technological upgrades, really sort of the other side of the same coin here is the labor issues that railroads have resisted making investments in maintenance and needed technological upgrades. They've also really resisted investing in a workforce that's fully staffed, that has sick days and, you know, has what it needs to maintain and operate trains safely.

MARTIN: Rebecca Burns is a reporter for the media startup The Lever. Rebecca, thanks so much for joining us.

BURNS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.