There’s a new push for railroad safety measures - engineering and environmental - in the wake of two recent train derailments, including the one in East Palestine, Ohio.

Mehdi Ahmadian, the director for the Center for Vehicle Safety and Systems at Virginia Tech, said railroads do everything possible to keep things safe, but accidents do happen, just as they would on the road. “This does not make rail transportation any less safe than other modes of transportation. In fact, rail transportation is one of the safest modes of transportation, if not the safest one, when we account for cargo tonnage and other factors,” said Ahmadian.

Ahmadian explained derailments don’t happen as often as we think. “There are approximately 1,000 derailments in the U.S. per year. The vast majority of them are minor incidents with wheels coming off the tracks.” While that number might seem high, Ahmadian said there are approximately 14 million train cars traveling on the rails per year. “When accounting for the number of railcars or cargo tonnage, the number of derailments and accidents are far fewer than the accidents involving semi-trucks.”  

The derailment in East Palestine has also raised questions about the environmental impact.  

“When we think about having trains transport these chemicals, there’s a lot of concern because all it takes is one accident,” said Austin Gray, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Virginia Tech, who studies environmental toxicology.. “Any type of contaminant that goes into the air is going to be transported to other areas - whether downstream or in different proximity.”  

Gray said 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.”  

“Train derailments can be devastating for communities, especially if hazardous materials are released like they were in this case,” said Gray.  “Hopefully, with this incident, we do see change within their policies so that there are stricter guidelines and regulations as to what happens when we travel or transport these bulk chemicals to our communities.”

About Ahmadian

Mehdi Ahmadian is the J. B. Jones Chair of Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech. He is also the Director of the Center for Vehicle Systems and Safety. Ahmadian has authored more than 400 refereed publications and has made more than 300 technical presentations including a number of keynote lectures. He holds 11 U.S. and international patents and has edited four technical volumes.

About Gray

Austin Gray is an assistant professor of biological sciences in the College of Science at Virginia Tech. Gray’s expertise lies in the fields of aquatic ecology and toxicology. His research is focused on investigating the combined effects of environmentally relevant levels of multiple contaminants (e.g., pesticides, pharmaceuticals and personal care products, micro plastics, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals) on aquatic organisms and ecosystems. Gray is a faculty affiliate of Virginia Tech’s Global Change Center. He works with colleagues across the university to address environmental, health and societal challenges posed by emerging contaminants.  

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