No, This Wobbly Train Track Didn’t Cause the Norfolk Southern Derailment in Ohio

Misinformation doesn’t help the residents of East Palestine, Ohio, in dealing with an environmental disaster.

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No, This Wobbly Train Track Didn’t Cause the Norfolk Southern Derailment in Ohio © No, This Wobbly Train Track Didn’t Cause the Norfolk Southern Derailment in Ohio

A Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, causing an environmental disaster that has made national headlines for two weeks. It brought attention to the crisis of freight derailments in the United States and also led to the circulation of misinformation online. In one case, a video of warped tracks bouncing a train along is implied to show the condition of rail infrastructure in Ohio, and thus the cause of the NS derailment. But the video isn't what it seems, and serves as a reminder the real story is rarely condensed into a viral truth bomb tweet.

The video in question originates from 2017, when it was uploaded to YouTube by Scott Taipale. True to its captions on social media, it was filmed in Ohio, but not on a track owned or traveled by NS. Instead, the track in the video belongs to the Napoleon, Defiance, & Western Railroad; a freight shortline in northwest Ohio. It purchased the route in 2013 from the Maumee & Western Railroad, a former shortline which Pioneer Rail (former owner of the ND&W) described in 2013 as being "in dire need of rehabilitation due to years of deferred maintenance." By years, they mean no major maintenance since 1964 according to a Trains forum user.

Since then, this stretch of track has been repaired, as shown in a video from Patriot Rail (which announced its acquisition of Pioneer Rail in August 2022, reports Railway Age). Though the ND&W operates on the opposite side of Ohio from East Palestine where the Norfolk Southern train derailed, this hasn't stopped users on social media from rapidly sharing the video as proof of why it happened.

Miscaptioned videos have reached millions on Twitter, both through possible bot activity and factually incomplete or inaccurate posts from political commentators. One even insinuated the deteriorated track had gone unfixed because of military aid sent to Ukraine. As previously mentioned, the rail line in the video is hundreds of miles from East Palestine and has already been repaired. On top of that, funding for the fix may have come in part from the federal government, which granted the ND&W $4.1 million for safety improvements according to a 2020 Pioneer Rail release.

No, This Wobbly Train Track Didn’t Cause the Norfolk Southern Derailment in Ohio

What caused Norfolk Southern's derailment has not yet been determined, though the NTSB's update on Tuesday indicated suspicion that it began with a failed wheel bearing. Poor maintenance isn't just a regional shortline problem either, as concluded by a U.S. Government Accountability Office report on Precision-Scheduled Railroading; the operational scheduling strategy used by the nation's class one freight railroads.

From 2011 to 2021, NS reduced its headcount by 39%, tying it for the largest cuts in the industry. Industry-wide, maintenance departments have suffered the most, seeing a reduction by 39.8% over the same period. As a result, employees and inspectors report railroads cutting corners on pre-departure inspections, with fewer, less-qualified staff on hand. Operating practice complaints to the Federal Railroad Administration have ballooned accordingly, from under 200 in 2020 to almost 400 before July 2022 was out. (Anecdotally, NS has a reputation among railfans for frequent derailments.)

Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. <em>NTSB</em>
Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. NTSB

The book isn't closed on the cause of Norfolk Southern's catastrophic East Palestine derailment, but it's easier to draw a connection to deteriorating maintenance practices at national freight railroads (particularly NS) than the condition of unaffiliated shortlines. It makes less sense to speculate feverishly based on a video without context, especially in a climate of politicized misinformation. The residents of East Palestine, Ohio, deserve justice, and polluting the discourse doesn't get them any closer to the recourse they deserve.

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