Virginia Tech professors analyze recent train derailments

Published: Feb. 17, 2023 at 10:37 PM EST
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - Though not very likely, the kind of train derailment that happened in East Palestine, Ohio has the chance to happen in any community near a major railroad system, according to Austin Gray, an assistant professor of Biological Sciences at Virginia Tech.

“When we think about transporting trains, or having trains transport these chemicals, there’s a lot of concern there because all it takes is one accident,” said Gray.

A train derailment in general can be devastating for a community, especially if hazardous materials are released into the environment like they were in East Palestine.

“Any type of contaminant goes into the air, it’s going to be transported to other areas, whether downstream, or in different proximities. The way these determinants spread in one area can go much farther in distance, meaning that non impacted communities may not be impacted now, but it could be in the future,” said Gray.

Gray hopes these situations spark change in the safety guidelines for transporting hazardous materials.

“Hopefully, with this incident, we do see change within their policies so that there is stricter guidelines and regulations as to what happens when we travel or transport these bulk chemicals to our communities. Because, again, typically, these communities are well populated, and people who are going to be impacted directly by that.”

Though the train crashes have made national headlines this week, Mehdi Ahmadian, the J. Bernard Jones Chair of Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech, said overall they don’t happen often.

“The data that we have shows that there are approximately about 1,000 derailments per year. On the surface that may seem like a large number. I would like to bring to your attention, we have approximately 14 million rail cars that are traveling on rails per year,” said Ahmadian.

The causes of the crashes usually are some kind of mechanical failure on the train, like a wheel coming off the tracks.

“We do everything as an industry to make sure that the safety of the train and the public is maintained. But as is the case with any mechanical system, there are times that there are failures.”

Mehdi Ahmadian says these derailments shouldn’t worry people about the safety of train transportation.

“The statistics are very well in favor of rail safety. And, and I would like to encourage everyone to look beyond an occasional accident.”

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality also outlined how it would work with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management if a hazardous material train derailment occurred in the Commonwealth.

“In DEQ’s support role, DEQ immediately would begin to coordinate with the responsible party and with local, state and federal response partners. DEQ’s initial concerns would be the actual or potential impacts to air, water, soil and wildlife with a specific focus on waters that serve a source of drinking water - in such instances DEQ coordinates closely with the Virginia Department of Health’s Office of Drinking Water. DEQ routinely coordinates with a host of state and federal agencies when pollution incidents threaten or impact Virginia’s natural resources, including but not limited to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US Coast Guard, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, VDEM, the Virginia Department of Health, and the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.

DEQ does not have a regulatory role in rail transportation; however, VDEM and DEQ work closely with localities to review data on transportation of hazardous materials. Localities conduct commodity flow studies to determine what moves locally on rail lines and highways. Collectively, we work with our railroads, federal partners, and port partners to gain a better understanding of what moves within and through the Commonwealth and how it moves.

DEQ has been monitoring the East Palestine train derailment and looks forward to the future after-action reviews and lessons learned both of which serve as valuable tools for improving response plans.”