RAIL SECURITYCan You Tell Whether a “Bomb Train” Is Coming to Your Town? It’s Complicated.

By John McCracken

Published 27 February 2023

This information about trains carrying hazardous materials is out there, but it is not always readily accessible. With the derailment of the Norfolk Southern train receiving international attention, more railroad communities are now asking what is traveling through their backyard, and how to avoid the fate of East Palestine, Ohio.

In the wake of the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment, Governor Mike DeWine called on Congress to look into why the rural village didn’t know ahead of time they had volatile chemicals coming through town. 

“We should know when we have trains carrying hazardous materials through the state of Ohio,” DeWine said at a press conference. 

This information is out there, but it’s probably not what the governor had in mind. With the derailment of the Norfolk Southern train receiving international attention, more railroad communities are now asking what is traveling through their backyard. 

According to representatives from the United States Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, all trains that carry hazardous materials are subject to “hazard communication” requirements. But this doesn’t mean a rail company tells the residents what is going by their town every day. 

The troika of hazard communications, according to the agency, contains the following: There is a listing of all cars with hazardous material on each train; signage detailing which car is carrying what material; and the use of AskRail, an electronic application used by first responders that gives up-to-the-minute details on a train’s location and contents.

AskRail was created by the country’s largest railroad companies and first responders and is not made available to the public over concerns of public safety and terrorism. PHMSA told Grist that all major railroad companies, including Norfolk Southern, use this application and the agency is developing a proposal to make the use of this app mandatory and expand its use to smaller railroad companies as well.

In 2017, when New Jersey citizens and politicians demanded more transparency about the contents and schedules of trains moving through their state, in the wake of national attention focused on oil-by-rail trains, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board called it a “dumb idea.”

“Nobody cares, frankly, until there’s a huge event,” a former railroad industry employee, who would only talk on background, told Grist. “Nobody cares outside the railroad industry, they care because it’s their liability and personnel handling materials.”

Nick Messenger is a senior researcher with the nonprofit Appalachian policy think tank Ohio River Valley Institute. He told Grist that however a material is deemed hazardous should be part of a transparent process and that the people who live in rail communities should get a say in that labeling.