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2019: The year of derailments

“Every possible asset trimmed to the bone”

The railroad industry is largely “self-regulated” which means that there is no outside agency that monitors safety or anything else, including collecting accident data. Recently the Railroad Workers United (RWU) made a list of “major” derailments on Class One railroads—not including passenger trains—and found an average of nearly one per week. No one would imagine that derailments are so common so we’ve listed them here. The National Transportation Safety Board investigates freight accidents only when there is a fatality or substantial property damage so, in many cases the “cause” of the derailment is not specified.

A coal train travels through downtown Tacoma
A coal train travels through downtown Tacoma

However, the RWU members have an insider’s grasp about why the increasing frequency of rail accidents. One driver is “PSR” which stands for Precision Scheduled Railroading—a new way to extract more profit by working fewer people longer and fewer assets harder. Ron Kaminkow is General Secretary of the RWU, and here is how he tells it:

The ranks of rail labor have been decimated. Loco and car inspections have been cut, resulting in more faulty equipment on the mainline, which can result in derails. Track inspections have been cut, resulting in undiscovered broken rails and other faults that can lead to derailments. Train lengths have grown exponentially, increasing slack and buff forces in train, that can result in derailments.

Train crews have been cut, resulting in longer hours and more fatigued and exhausted crews that can lead to operator “error.” We see all this and more as combining to increase the likelihood of train wrecks and derailments. The cost-cutting is run amok, with every possible asset being trimmed to the bone, including training, front-line management, simple maintenance, access to water, rotten food. Morale is at an all-time low, which again contributes to accidents in general.

In Canada, where the two senior railroads that have been under the sway of PSR—CP and CN—a dramatic increase in derailments has been logged. In addition, nearly a dozen rail workers have been killed in Canada in the last 2 years, which proportionately to the amount of track and number of trains/employees, would be quite an alarming spike in numbers in the US.”

The rail freight industry has long wanted to run trains with only one person on board, and last year the Trump Administration withdrew a rule that would have required a minimum of two. The goal is also to pre-empt states, several of whom require larger crews. Crew size has dropped from 5 in the 1970s, to 3 in the ‘80s and now to one or two.

2020 could be another banner year for derailments. January has already seen derailments, including several cars and the engine of a BNSF train leaking oil into the Kootenai River near Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho in an area accessible only by water.

Major derailments in 2019

  • BNSF – Boise, Idaho 12/31 – BNSF locomotive falls into Kootenai River leaking oil.
  • CN – Fraser-Ft. George, BC 12/26 – 23 CN rail cars derail in multiple positions.
  • CSX – Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia 12/21 – 7 freight cars derail near the Potomac River.
  • CSX – Washington, West Virginia 12/16 – Train employee killed in derailment near a chemical plant.
  • Conrail – SW Detroit, Michigan 12/12 – 15 Conrail freight cars derail. No one was hurt.
  • CP – Central Saskatchewan 9/19 – Canadian Pacific Railway derailed carrying crude oil causing major spill and 24-hour inferno.
  • UP – Spokane Yard, Washington X4 – 11/18 – Train derails for the fourth time.
  • BNSF – Red Oak, Iowa – 11/13 – Large coal shipment derails. No one was hurt.
  • NS – Hempfield Tsp., Pennsylvania -11/8 – Major collision causes three trains to derail along Georges Station road.
  • BNSF – Radium Springs, New Mexico – 10/31 – 23 freight cars derail.
  • BNSF – Flagstaff, Arizona – 10/14 – Multiple cars derail with no injuries.
  • NS – Perry, Georgia – 10/19 – Major train derailment after 30 freight cars are thrown off tracks near Perdue plant.
  • NS – Fairfield, Ohio – 10/8 – Two sent to hospital after two trains (both Norfolk trains) collided in northern Cincinnati suburbs.
  • UP – Portland, Oregon – 9/10- Damaged rail causes train to crash into bridge supports.
  • UP – Dupo, Illinois – 9/10 – 16 Union Pacific freight cars derail bursting into flames.
  • CP – Southern Alberta – 9/2 – Freight cars derail causing evacuation after cars leak octane.
  • BNSF – Central Kansas – 8/17 – 140 rail cars derail in 67-mph strong winds.
  • CSX – Carey, Ohio – 8/12 – Two freight trains collide while supposedly running opposite directions.
  • BNSF – Doon, Iowa – 7/31 – 25 cars derail, with no injuries.
  • CN – Calgary, Alberta – 7/30 – 14 rail cars derail. Still under investigation.
  • NS – Altoona, Pennsylvania – 7/26 – Train derails rounding a curve, no injuries reported.
  • UP – Mercer Co, Missouri – 7/26 – 70 freight cars derail en route to Ft. Worth Texas.
  • NS – West Virginia – 7/24 – 20 hazardous freight cars derail and plunge into creek.
  • UP – Pocatello, Idaho- 7/12 – 7 rail cars derail with no injuries or major spills.
  • UP – Lincoln Co., Nevada -7/19 – 33 cars derail, damaging cars and pickup trucks in cargo.
  • CSX – Avon, Indiana – 7/10 – 3 freight cars hit a stationary rail car and catch fire after rupturing its fuel tank.
  • UP – Bostwick, Nebraska – 7/9 – Train derails after flood waters block tracks.
  • NS – Horseshoe Curve, Pennsylvania – 7/6 – 11 car derailment.
  • BNSF – Grant Co, Wisconsin – 7/1 – 14 cars derail after rock/mudslide damages rails.
  • BNSF – National City, California – 7/1 – 9 cars derail as train backs up.
  • CN – St. Clair Tunnel, Canada – 6/28 – 40 cars derail inside a tunnel and leak sulphuric acid.
  • NS – Great Dismal Swamp Refuge, Virginia – 6/26 – 36 cars derail spewing coal dust into the refuge and waters.
  • UP – Interstate 80, Nevada – 6/20 – 25 cars carrying munitions derail closing I-80 for several hours.
  • UP – Belle Plaine, Iowa – 6/19 – 28 cars derail but no fire or injuries.
  • UP- Lincoln Co. Nevada – 6/10 – 33 cars derail destroying dozens of new jeeps and trucks.
  • PanAm – Bristow, Conn. – 6/10 – 6 cars derail, no one hurt.
  • UP – Stanwood, Iowa – 6/6 – 35 cars carrying coal derail with some spilling.
  • CSX – Ohio – 5/28 – 20 cars and a locomotive derail leaking fuel on a busy track.
  • NS – Mississippi – 5/11 – 25 empty cars derail on a flooded track.
  • UP – near Salt Lake City, Utah – 3/30 – 24 cars derail releasing propane.
  • CSX – Baltimore, MD – 3/15 – 9 cars plunge off a bridge striking a car. No injuries.
  • CP – Calgary, Alberta – 3/9 – 2 trains collide in the rail yard.
  • CN – St. Lazare, Manitoba – 2/16 – 37 cars carrying crude oil derail spilling an unknown amount of oil.
  • CP – Field, BC – 2/4 – 99 cars & a locomotive derail on a bridge and plunge into the river, killing three crew members.
  • CN – Saskatoon, Saskatchewan – 1/22 – 30 cars of a grain train derail leaking diesel.
  • UP – Aubrey, Texas – 1/9 – 7 cars derail in a small town one punches through a backyard.
  • NS – Barlow, Georgia – 1/6- 37 cars carrying chemicals derail – town evacuated for chlorine fumes later discovered to be hydrogen peroxide fumes.

Baxter Lee compiled this list from data collected by the Railroad Workers’ United website and augmented it with information from contemporaneous news reports.
RWU is at


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