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“The Cut” is a weekly reporters notebook-type essay by an Ideastream Public Media content creator, reflecting on the news and on life in Northeast Ohio. What exactly does “The Cut” mean? It's a throwback to the old days of using a razor blade to cut analog tape. In radio lingo, we refer to sound bites as “cuts.” So think of these behind-the-scene essays as “cuts” from Ideastream's producers.

Stay off the tracks: We all need to take rail safety seriously

Firefighters walk on Norfolk Southern's safety train.
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
Firefighters walk on Norfolk Southern's safety train on March 21, 2023.

How often did you think about rail safety before the train derailment in East Palestine earlier this year?

For me, the answer was hardly ever. My dad drilled into me when I was learning how to drive to be cautious around train tracks. But aside from that, I rarely ever thought about the danger trains pose to me or my community. But I should have.

There are about three train derailments every day in the United States, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration. Few of them are as disastrous as the one in East Palestine, but train derailments in 2022 left 16 people injured and one person dead.

Aerial view of damaged trains laying in dirt beside the train tracks in East Palestine
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Damaged Norfolk Southern train cars lie beside the train tracks in East Palestine nearly three weeks after they derailed.

And those are just derailments. There were 2,197 vehicle-train collisions at public and private rail crossings in 2022, causing 274 deaths and 812 injuries, according to the FRA. Every three hours, a person or vehicle is hit by a train, according to the the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.

Most of us frequently pass over train tracks in our daily commutes or live close enough to one for derailments to be a concern. So how can we be safer around train tracks? And how can trains be safer when coming through our communities?

Here are a few tips from the state on how you can be safer around railways:

  • Always expect a train.
  • Don't walk on or beside railroad tracks. That's actually illegal. According to the FRA, trespassing is the leading cause of rail-related deaths in the U.S., causing more than 400 deaths annually.
  • Only cross tracks at designated public crossings with traffic signs, flashing red lights or a gate. Crossing anywhere else is also illegal.
  • Walk bikes across the tracks instead of riding.
  • Stay off railroad bridges and out of railroad tunnels. There's only room for the train.
  • No photo is worth the risk. Although its a popular backdrop, taking pictures on train tracks is dangerous and illegal.
  • Call the Ohio Rail Hotline at 866-814-7245 with any railroad crossing questions.

Since the train derailment in East Palestine, increased regulation for freight rail companies has been top of mind for lawmakers, regulators and rail experts.

Two big pieces of legislation have been introduced in Congress to better regulate the rail industry: the Railway Safety Act in the Senate and the Reducing Accidents in Locomotives Act in the House. Both bills would increase inspections of trains, require rail carriers to give advanced notice of what trains are carrying and strengthen regulation to prevent wheel bearing failures.

The National Transportation Safety Board will release a full report next year on the derailment in East Palestine, which will include policy and safety recommendations to prevent future derailments.

Firefighters examine the Norfolk Southern safety train.
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
Firefighters examine the Norfolk Southern safety train at a training session on March 21, 2023.

Norfolk Southern, the freight rail company whose train derailed in East Palestine, has promised to increase the safety of its trains. That includes training first responders on how to respond to train derailments. The company brought its safety train to Bellevue earlier this year to give first responders hands on experience with rail equipment. The safety train will be back in Ohio this week to train first responders in Lorain.

As we follow the progress of regulation legislation, I strongly encourage you to take rail safety into your own hands. Be safe and aware around train tracks and learn about the risks rail can pose to your community.

"The Cut" is featured in Ideastream Public Media's weekly newsletter, The Frequency Week in Review. To get The Frequency Week in Review, The Daily Frequency or any of our newsletters, sign up on Ideastream's newsletter subscription page.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.