Bomb Trains: more common than you think and much less cool than they sound
Two weeks ago, a small Ohio town was bombed. It wasn’t an intentional attack, in the sense that there is not necessarily a straight line between negligence, apathy, and greed and intent. The town of Palestine was assaulted by a bomb train, a freight train carrying explosive, toxic chemicals, which derailed and crashed and did exactly what one would expect it to do. Oh, and the train appeared to actually already be on fire before derailing.
After the explosion and the fire and the spilling of vinyl chloride all over the damn place, people were justifiably concerned. The air, land, and water all around the site of the explosion, and spreading outward, were contaminated by noxious, carcinogenic chemicals. People were told to evacuate the town.
Emergency personnel conducted controlled burns to dispose of what they could of the spill, that which hadn’t already burned on its own. Because when dealing with toxic chemicals, the best thing to do is burn them, so that they are airborne and can spread more easily. Especially when burning said chemicals produces phosgene gas, used as a chemical weapon in WW1.
State and federal government officials have said that it is now safe for residents to return to their homes. The situation is reminiscent of when Flint, Michigan residents were told that it was now safe to drink the water being piped into their homes. Why should people believe the assurances of those whose corruption and incompetence caused the hazardous chemical disaster to happen in the first place? Why should they believe anything they’re told when it conflicts with what they can see, smell, taste, and know to be true?
Tragic as this disaster is, it’s not that surprising. If anything, it’s surprising that it doesn’t happen more often. The US’s transportation infrastructure is a decaying mess. There are between one- and two-thousand train derailments every year in the US, and there have already been more than a dozen this year. That’s what happens when you shoot rickety old train cars along ancient and decrepit tracks carrying tons of weight. It’s what happens when an industry of greedy and uncaring corporations slash costs everywhere they can, from workers to maintenance to new equipment. And it is what happens when politicians bow to lobbyists and don’t effectively regulate such industries on behalf of the people.
The train that crashed in Palestine, Ohio, like many trains criss-crossing the country carrying Christ knows what chemicals and other hazards, had an air-brake system invented in the 19th century, which hasn’t been the safest or most effective system for much of this past century. Modern trains should have electronically controlled pneumatic brakes. I just learned what the fuck those are this past week, but the American railroad industry has known about them for decades. They have no justification for not equipping their trains with ECP brakes, other than that they (Norfolk Southern, in this case) calculated that the expense of doing so was greater than the profit. It’s cheaper for them to have their trains derail and explode and spread poisons and kill people than it is to replace a system patented by George fucking Westinghouse in 1869.
Obama signed a (rather toothless) bill (that wouldn't have taken effect until this year) mandating that trains be updated with brakes made in the 20th century and not founded in steam technology. Trump repealed that, because of course he did. Biden did nothing to put it back into effect. Biden also hired Buttigieg as his secretary of transportation, despite Buttigieg not knowing an apparent goddamn thing about the field and having no qualifications for the job other than losing a longshot presidential campaign and then puckering up to kiss Biden’s ring as quickly as possible without shattering both his kneecaps.
Without competent officials who will enforce needed safety regulations, among several practical demands that the rail worker unions were fighting for before Biden robbed them of that legal right, instead of kowtowing to corporate money-oozing pustules, tragedies like this will continue to happen. Towns and cities will be ruined, the environment will be made increasingly toxic, more people will die. Bomb trains will derail again and they’ll explode again if nothing is done after this story fades from the news cycle.