Thursday, 06 April 2023 09:02

The True Dangers of Long Trains

Just before 5 a.m., Harry Shaffer’s wife called to him from across the living room, where he’d fallen asleep on the couch, exhausted from installing an aboveground pool. Did he hear that sound, that metallic screeching from up the valley? She opened the door of their double-wide trailer and walked outside as Shaffer closed his eyes.

A moment later came a thunderous crack of splintering lumber. Debris shot through the living room. Shaffer opened his eyes again to find a hulking train car steps from where he lay. It had shorn off the roof, exposing the murk of the pre-dawn sky. He jumped up and ran outside and saw the garage next door in flames.

Though it sat at the floor of a valley along a busy stretch of railroad tracks, the quiet town of Hyndman, Pennsylvania, hadn’t seen a major derailment in recent memory. Trains didn’t frighten residents like Shaffer even though 21 of them trundled through the town’s center day and night.

But unbeknownst to them, the corporations that ran those trains had recently adopted a moneymaking strategy to move cargo faster than ever, with fewer workers, on trains that are consistently longer than at any time in history. Driven by the efficiency goals of precision scheduled railroading, companies are forgoing long-held safety precautions, such as assembling trains to distribute weight and risk or taking the proper time to inspect them, ProPublica found. Instead, their rushed workers are stringing together trains that stretch for 2 or even 3 miles, sometimes without regard for the delicate physics of keeping heavy, often combustible tanker cars from jumping off the tracks.

Rail safety grabbed headlines this February after a Norfolk Southern train passed sensors designed to flag mechanical issues and catastrophically derailed in East Palestine, Ohio; Republicans and Democrats alike are now calling for tighter regulations on company operations, especially in light of precision scheduled railroading.

ProPublica’s reporting suggests they should start by looking at federal regulators’ ponderous response to the mounting warnings about the dangers of long freight trains.

Before that morning in Hyndman in August 2017, regulators had already investigated seven long-train accidents in which the length was a culprit, and the nation’s largest rail worker union had sounded alarms about a pattern of problems.

None of this caused the Federal Railroad Administration, the agency in charge of train safety, to intercede — even as more long trains crashed in the years after the Hyndman derailment, sending cars spilling into other communities.

Today, the rail administration says it lacks enough evidence that long trains pose a particular risk. But ProPublica discovered it is a quandary of the agency’s own making: It doesn’t require companies to provide certain basic information after accidents — notably, the length of the train — that would allow it to assess once and for all the extent of the danger.

“It’s one of our biggest frustrations, without question,” said Jared Cassity, the alternate national legislative director for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, or SMART. The union representative said the agency can track train length for accidents “and they’ve chosen not to.”

In the absence of data, the industry insists that long trains have actually helped to improve rail safety, pointing to an overall decline in derailments. The Association of American Railroads, the industry lobby, says safety is the priority when building long trains and notes that regulators have never cited length as the direct cause of an accident. The nation’s seven largest rail companies, the so-called Class 1s, echo these points, defending their safety practices and saying that PSR has led to fewer problems.

To make sense of this gap in information, ProPublica reviewed court and regulatory records of thousands of incidents involving trains of all lengths, as well as technical and investigative notes in federal files from nearly two decades of long-train incidents. We conducted more than 200 interviews, including candid conversations with rail personnel who described how companies have sidestepped best practices when building and running long trains. Then we went to Hyndman to learn what happens to a community in the aftermath of a preventable catastrophe, uncovering damage that cannot be repaired, even with millions in rail company checks.

An aerial view of the Hyndman crash Credit: CSX Train Derailment with Hazardous Materials Release via National Transportation Safety Board

That summer morning, the sky was burning red when Shaffer, a thin, stoic man of 50, surveyed his neighborhood. Mounds of what looked like grain had spilled from the train cars and molten sulfur, like lava, crawled across the grass. He spotted his wife standing on a neighbor’s porch, but before he could process the relief, he saw another neighbor, Kristina Sutphin, screaming from a second-story window. “Help me!” she yelled. “I can’t get out!”

Sutphin, 27, had thought it was an earthquake when her house started shaking, and she’d rolled on top of her 2-year-old daughter, Mia, to protect her. When it stopped, she hit the lights and found drywall dust everywhere. Her house, too, had been struck by a train car, knocking a wall panel studded with nails over the stairs, trapping her and her daughter as the fire outside grew.

Shaffer ran for a ladder, but the train car had demolished one side of his home, including the bedroom where, on any other night, he and his wife would have been sleeping and where his German shepherd, Diamond, had her kennel. He couldn’t see Diamond, and he wouldn’t learn until a few days later that she had been crushed to death.

By the time he got to Sutphin, her brother had run across the street and a neighbor had arrived with a ladder. Her brother climbed up and carried Mia down as Sutphin followed behind. Volunteer firefighters, fear on their faces, raced door to door, urging people to evacuate.

Kristina Sutphin and her daughter, Mia Credit: Jamie Kelter Davis for ProPublica

For longtime residents, it felt like another dark chapter: In 1949, a Christmas tree fire burned through dozens of businesses and homes; a flood in 1984 lapped at door frames and swamped basements; and in 1996, another flood submerged window sills in brown, swirling water.

But this disaster, thought Bobby Walls, Hyndman’s 36-year-old emergency manager, was something else. He’d grown up in Hyndman, starting a family in the green, peaceful valley. Now a flaming geyser towered over the rooftops, and Walls wondered: Was anyone dead? As he ran toward the blaze in his firefighting gear, Walls didn’t know that the tanker car at its center contained propane — enough that if it erupted and set off the six others around it, the explosion could engulf the entire town of some 900 people.

The tanker car still howled about seven hours later as Walls and a number of first responders waited in a cinderblock-walled classroom for word from a train company crew that was monitoring the fire. Then, the door flung open. The room quieted as a CSX worker hustled to the whiteboard and began to write.

The tanker car is rapidly failing.

An explosion is imminent.

We need to evacuate now.

Footage from the Hyndman derailment Credit: Associated Press via YouTube

For generations, railroad workers considered a 1.4-mile-long train huge.

Then Hunter Harrison came along.

Harrison was a railroading innovator with only a high school education, hired as a car oiler in a Memphis yard in 1963. By the 1980s, he had moved into the top management of Illinois Central, a carrier he viewed as bloated and fatally unprofitable. It was an era when most railroads, including his, had an operating ratio in the 90s, meaning that the company had to spend about 90 cents to make a dollar and was netting less than a dime, or 10%, in profit.

Harrison, a self-described “stern, disciplinarian taskmaster,” was obsessed with efficiency. At a time when other executives feared computers, he used them to track every boxcar and locomotive and learned which ones sat idle. “Railroads,” he once said, according to the biography “Railroader,” “only make money when cars are moving. ... So why would we lay down tracks just to have cars sit idle?”

When he became CEO in 1993, Harrison looked for even the smallest ways to cut costs, from tearing up unused tracks to eliminating document storage and overnight stays for train crews. By 1998, he had managed to drop the operating ratio to 62.3, a significant jump in profitability. But the savings were never enough. He flew around in a corporate jet with a tail number that read OR59, his aspirational operating ratio.

In the years that followed, Harrison made his mark as a senior leader at Canadian National after it acquired Illinois Central; he sold off 35% of its locomotive fleet and focused on moving cars in and out of yards at breakneck speeds. To do this, the employees had to work harder, and so did the trains. “I’m impatient,” he once told Progressive Railroading. “I’m also demanding. But I’m asking people to stretch.” By then, he was CEO.

Longer trains would become integral to the management philosophy he dubbed precision scheduled railroading. The rail industry makes its money by the weight and distance of the freight it hauls. A long train makes in one trip what a short train would make in two or three or four, and with fewer employees. There was no need to design a new breed of super trains; these behemoths could be built from more of the same components: more cars with engines spliced into midsections to help move, and stop, more weight.

By 2013, Harrison was CEO of Canadian Pacific when he wrote in its annual report: “We’re driving longer and longer trains, which means fewer train starts, faster network velocity and better service at lower cost.”

Hunter Harrison in 2015 Credit: Chris Goodney/Bloomberg via Getty Images

America’s largest railroads took note. They began making their trains longer and their staffing margins smaller; in 2015, companies started laying off what would become a fifth of the workforce at the largest railroads. That year, CSX bragged to its investors about its “train length initiative” and how longer trains helped to reduce staff needs. Harrison left Canadian Pacific to run CSX in 2017; that year, the company reported $249 million in “efficiency savings.” CSX told ProPublica that it “impugns the assertion that its management philosophy promotes dangerous practices.”

Harrison died nine months after taking over CSX, but he’d already secured his legacy. Many of the biggest railroad companies operating in the U.S. had adopted precision scheduled railroading. They were running long trains. The Association of American Railroads told ProPublica the industry has been safely running long trains for more than 80 years. It says they are more fuel efficient and allow companies to run fewer trains, which means fewer chances of collisions at railroad crossings.

In April 2017, the Federal Railroad Administration got a letter from the nation’s largest railroad union, SMART. Workers had been seeing troubling patterns related to these long trains, wrote John Risch, the union’s national legislative director at the time. “While I am fully aware that there are no federal regulations limiting the size of trains, running these monster trains [is] inherently unsafe and FRA has broad authority to investigate the practice and put an end to it.”

By the time Risch sent his note, the agency was well aware that the growing length of trains was creating unique issues. ProPublica’s review of more than 600 investigative reports on train accidents over almost two decades found that the FRA had known of problems for years.

The reports revealed that some long trains were too big to fit into sidings off of main tracks that were often built to accommodate trains no longer than 1.4 miles, and passing trains were crashing into their rear ends. It happened in September 2005 when a 1.5-mile-long BNSF train tried to fit into a siding in Missouri that was 1.4 miles long. The same thing happened the following year in Utah to a 1.5-mile-long Union Pacific train.

An October 2017 derailment in Atlanta Credit: John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

The hulking trains could generate forces powerful enough to break the heavy-duty materials their cars were made of. In March 2008, the rear end of a 1.5-mile-long BNSF train ran forward as the front of the train decelerated, sandwiching the train and cracking an old repair on a tanker car. The train broke in two in Minnesota, dumping 20,000 gallons of ethylene glycol, commonly used in antifreeze, into a tributary of the Mississippi River.

And long trains that were assembled with too much weight in the rear and too little up front were hurtling out of control and jumping off of tracks. It happened in Virginia in 2006, in Wisconsin in 2015 and in Iowa in May 2017. Short trains can derail in the same way, but experts say longer trains can cause more damage when they fling dozens of cars and their contents through neighborhoods.

The companies involved in these accidents did not comment on them specifically, but Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern, in separate statements, said they spend more than $1 billion annually maintaining and improving infrastructure for safety and work closely with regulators. See what they said about their broader safety practices here. BNSF did not reply to a request for comment.

On July 31, 2017, CSX assembled Train Q38831 in a rail yard in Chicago, destined for a city outside of Hyndman. It had five locomotives at the front and 136 cars trailing behind, about half hauling hazardous material: propane, isobutane, ethyl alcohol, phosphoric acid and molten sulfur heated to 235 degrees Fahrenheit. It was a bomb train, as some workers refer to them, given its combustible cargo. When it left the yard and traveled east, the train grew. In Lordstown, Ohio, workers added 28 cars. In New Castle, Pennsylvania, they added 14. Now the train was 2 miles long.

Engineer Donald Sager, who boarded the train on the night of Aug. 1 in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, about 50 miles west of Hyndman, was uncomfortable with it. It was, he later told federal investigators, “big and heavy and ugly.” It had 38 empty cars near the front with almost all the train’s tonnage behind them, so the empty cars would be lurching around as all that weight bore down on them. He said the train would be bucking.

Sager took the train with his conductor, James Beitzel, from the Connellsville yard at 8:28 p.m. under a clouded sky and began climbing the backside of the mountain outside Hyndman. The climb was steep and the train needed a push from an extra locomotive, which coupled onto the rear. The locomotive broke off when the bulk of the train crested the mountain, passing a sign that read: “Summit of Alleghenies, Altitude 2258.”

The long, winding descent into Hyndman is one of the steepest in all of CSX territory, and the train weighed 18,252 tons, heavier than 200 fueled and loaded Boeing 737s. An engineer on a train like that has to closely watch the speed. It’s best to operate the brakes proactively, but as the train started down the mountain, Sager’s instruments were telling him the air brakes were beginning to fail. He stopped the train at 11:36 p.m. and radioed dispatchers.

“Got a problem with the train.”

Beitzel climbed down from the engine with his light and began walking in the gravel along the tracks. He had to manually set the brakes on 30% of the cars to be sure the train didn’t start moving on its own. Per company rules, he applied them on 58 cars near the front, cranking around and around a big steel wheel at the end of each car. Then Beitzel walked nearly 2 miles to the rear, where he found the problem at Car 159. A brake line had cracked and air was hissing out. That type of malfunction typically affects the brakes on all of the cars, like a chain reaction.

About two and a half hours later, when he finally got back, his shift had ended and Sager was briefing a new crew. Mechanics replaced the brake line while Ron Main, the new engineer, and Michael Bobb, the new conductor, waited. It was around 2 a.m. The train wouldn’t budge with the hand brakes on, so Bobb climbed down and walked back, knocking off brakes as he went. He released 25 and left the remaining set because the descent was steep, a practice at odds with accepted rail safety then and now, investigators and railroad workers say. Then finally, at 4:17 a.m., the train began rolling down the valley into Hyndman.

Bobb’s approach created a dangerous problem, investigators would later conclude. The 33 cars with hand brakes left on were toward the head of the train, and 13 of those were empty. There were also 25 other empty cars near the front. This meant the lightest section of the train was doing the bulk of the braking. It also meant that the heaviest section of the train — literally the rest of it — was bearing down on them. Such forces can pop empties or lightly loaded cars off the tracks, as had already happened in at least three long-train derailments investigated by the FRA.

The other part of the problem was in the hand brakes themselves. They play the same role as emergency brakes in an automobile; conductors usually put them on when they need to park a train. Applied and functioning properly, they immobilize a train car’s wheels. But driving a train with the hand brakes set can damage it, and that’s what happened to the Hyndman train. Its speed fluctuated as its locked steel wheels ground along the tracks, beginning to deform and lose purchase.

It’d be easy to blame Bobb or Main for what was about to happen. But they were only following CSX policy when they set the hand brakes on this huge, heavy train and sent it rolling down the long, steep hill. A safe and proper move would have been to break the train into two at the top of the hill and drive each section down separately, said Grady Cothen, a former FRA attorney who has written a widely cited white paper on the challenges of operating longer trains. But it would have taken more time, and the train was already delayed. CSX at the time was the only one of the seven largest train companies to allow the use of hand brakes to control the speed of a train down a hill.

It would also be easy to blame the crew in New Castle that had added eight empty and six loaded cars to the head of the train, making it longer and less stable. Or the crew before it in Lordstown that added 28 cars, all empty, to the head of the train. But these crews, too, were following a CSX policy, which dictated they could ignore a more sensible policy — don’t put so many loaded cars behind empties — if they were pressed for time. It was a risky edict considering crews are always pressed for time in the age of precision scheduled railroading.

That August morning, the train hit a speed of 29 miles an hour as it reached the bottom of the hill, passing the house where Shaffer slept on his living room couch. Main and Bobb felt a lunge in the cab. The train’s emergency brakes kicked in and it screeched to a stop.

“Hey, Alex,” Main called to the dispatcher. “We just went into emergency. ... I’m not sure what’s going on back there, but the conductor’s getting ready to get on the ground.” (Main, Bobb and Sager could not be reached, and Beitzel declined to comment. Their remarks are from transcripts in the federal investigation of the accident.)

Bobb climbed down from the cab and began walking toward the problem. Suddenly, there was an explosion and a fireball rose into the night about a half-mile back from the engines. Main, up in his locomotive, hadn’t noticed. He didn’t learn about it until a man drove up to his window and yelled the news into the cab.

Federal investigators would later learn that Car 35 — empty, hand brakes set — had jumped the tracks on a curve, and two cars ahead of it and 30 behind it had followed.

Loaded

Locomotives

Loaded with hazardous materials

Empty

Early on the morning of Aug. 2, 2017, CSX Train Q38831 was traveling east toward Hyndman, Pennsylvania.

The train was 2 miles long and weighed over 18,000 tons.

It was loaded with innocuous cargo like paper and corn syrup as well as hazardous materials such as propane and molten sulfur.

Ninety percent of the train’s weight was behind the leading 42 cars.

Because of a previous brake failure, 33 cars had their hand brakes on as the train rolled downhill toward Hyndman.

With its wheels locked and over 16,000 tons of weight trailing it on a downhill, the 35th car was the first to derail west of Hyndman.

Thirty-two more cars derailed as the train entered Hyndman on a 1.7% downslope while rounding a curve.

The derailment caused massive destruction, and three of the loaded cars released hazardous material.

After the derailment, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended in a letter that CSX prohibit using hand brakes on empty cars to control a train’s speed down a hill. It also recommended that large blocks of empty cars be placed near the end, not the front. “We would appreciate a response within 90 days of the date of this letter, detailing the actions you have taken or intend to take to implement these recommendations.”

But CSX responded more than two years later and only after ProPublica began asking recently why it had ignored the NTSB. In its response letter, CSX says the agency was wrong; the train’s makeup did not contribute to the crash. However it still reformed the policy, requiring, among other things, placing more weight near front of the train and prohibiting trains from “having more than a third of its weight in the trailing fourth of the train.” It also adopted the NTSB’s other recommendation on hand brakes, prohibiting their use on empty cars in “mountain grade territory,” a company spokesperson told ProPublica. It said the derailment was caused by “hand brakes on empty rail cars to control train speed on steep grade ... not PSR.”

By that afternoon, emergency manager Walls and the other first responders had evacuated everyone who would agree to leave Hyndman. The tanker burned for two days and yet did not explode. Though it came close: The pressure inside the car caused the steel wall of its inner hull to stretch as thin as a credit card. They’d come 1 millimeter, Walls said, from disaster.

Bobby Walls Credit: Jamie Kelter Davis for ProPublica

The U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee took note of the derailment and asked the Government Accountability Office to study the safety and impacts of long trains. The committee’s two ranking members hadn’t even signed the letter before CSX derailed another long train in Georgia, just two months after Hyndman.

It was 2.4 miles long, and like the Hyndman train, a bulk of its tonnage had been loaded in the rear. When the engineer began to brake, the back of the train slid forward and shoved a car ahead of it off the tracks on a curve, and 13 other cars followed. One car crashed into a home and the person inside was rushed to a hospital. The man survived. CSX did not comment on this accident but did tell ProPublica the company is committed to operating safely and is constantly evaluating its rules, specifically on train handling. See what else it said about its safety practices here.

The 2017 derailment in Atlanta that sent a person to the hospital Credit: John Spink/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

It was only after all of this happened that the FRA, in March 2018, replied to the union officials who had expressed concerns that previous spring. In a letter, the agency said it “began looking at the length of trains as a potential contributing cause of FRA reportable accidents/incidents” in 2016. The agency still did not have “the sufficient data or evidence to justify an Emergency Order limiting the length of trains.”

In May 2019, the GAO completed its study, coming to a similar conclusion: long trains may be dangerous, but more information was needed. Its effort was partly stymied, the GAO said, because most rail companies refused to hand over enough of their private train-length data to allow investigators to make findings. The FRA also told ProPublica it has asked companies for this data but never gotten it.

On Thursday, the FRA told ProPublica it is starting the process of requiring companies to disclose the train length for every reportable accident, a move prompted by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. But there is no guarantee the regulators will succeed. The FRA said it first needs to publish a notice of the new data-collection effort and ultimately the Office of Management and Budget would need to approve the measure.

Had the FRA issued an emergency order as the union requested in 2017, a rare and extreme step, the railroads would have likely gotten a judge to block it, said Cothen, author of the white paper on longer trains. He acknowledged that most of the long trains in the country arrive at their destinations without incident, but he feels the railroads are operating with an unreasonable degree of risk. He believes the FRA has the evidence it needs to start crafting a rule to limit train lengths, a process that would include input from the industry. “My issue to this point,” Cothen said, “has been that effective action has not been taken.” The FRA says it disagrees.

Across the country, worried state lawmakers have tried to cap the lengths of trains that roll through their communities. Since 2019, in Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Georgia, Nebraska, Washington, Arizona and other states, lawmakers have proposed maximum lengths of 1.4 to about 1.6 miles. But every proposal has died before becoming law. Opponents, which include Class 1 railroad companies, claim that the efforts are driven by unions to create jobs and that the proposals would violate interstate commerce laws.

Georgia state Sen. Rick Williams, a Republican, attempted to work around this angst by offering a simple resolution last year that would have urged the FRA to limit train length. Even that died. “It’s frustrating,” he said, “when you see something that happens, like in East Palestine, Ohio, and you know it very easily could happen here and we could suffer the same consequences.”

Democratic Arizona state Rep. Consuelo Hernandez’s bill to limit train length was approved by two committees this session with bipartisan support. But Republicans refuse to put the bill on the floor for a general vote, and so it has stalled. ProPublica spoke with her the day after a 1.9-mile-long BNSF train derailed there. “The train companies are so powerful,” Hernandez said. “What it comes down to is public safety versus corporations.”

Many states have passed laws that would punish railroads for blocking road crossings, but that power, state courts rule every time, rests solely with the federal government.

At any moment, Congress could intervene and limit the length of trains. If it did, independent experts say, there’d be more trains, moving faster with fewer breakdowns and derailments, and customer service would improve. But the rail companies, which move 40% of the country’s cargo, have a lot of leverage. For more than a century, the industry has convinced lawmakers that the success of America is tied to the success of the rails; it’s a view that persists today, sustained by the $10 million the Association of American Railroads spends some years lobbying Congress.

So long trains have continued jumping the tracks.

In June 2019, one month after the inconclusive GAO study, a 2.2-mile-long Union Pacific train derailed in Nevada. It was so long and the terrain so mountainous that at times sections of the train climbed uphill while other sections climbed downhill, which made driving it a nightmare. Ultimately the engineer couldn’t manage it, and the train lifted a car up and dropped it on the ground. Twenty-seven cars followed.

In July, a 2.5-mile-long Union Pacific train derailed for the same reasons elsewhere in Nevada.

In August, a 1.6-mile-long Union Pacific train going 48 miles an hour derailed in Texas. The company ran computer simulations after the crash and concluded it never should have been operating the long train at that speed at that spot on the tracks.

In September, Union Pacific crashed yet another long train. It was 1.5 miles long and broke in two in Illinois. Half of the train rolled out of control away from the other half. It then slowed, stopped and began rolling back. The two halves collided and exploded. The fire spread underground through a storm drain and ignited a holding pond at a chemical plant. More than 1,000 residents and at least 1,000 schoolchildren were evacuated.

And then in October, in separate instances, Norfolk Southern derailed two long trains, both in Georgia. One was 2 miles long. The engineer had struggled to control it, and his use of the brakes caused the rear of the train to run into the front and lift a car off the tracks. The other train was 1.6 miles long. Its autopilot had the brakes applied in the front and the engine in the middle giving it gas, and as it reached the bottom of a hill the opposing forces popped 32 cars off the tracks. They ruptured a pipeline, which released nearly 2.3 million gallons of natural gas.

The following summer, in June 2020, a 2.3-mile-long Union Pacific train derailed in Idaho because it was too big, the FRA determined. It was constructed unevenly with 34 empty cars coupled near the front and loaded, heavy cars behind them. The heavy cars pushed the light cars off the tracks. The FRA also determined the engineer lacked the training necessary to operate a train of that length.

In July 2020, a 2-mile-long BNSF train derailed in Arizona for similar reasons: a long block of heavy cars coupled behind a set of empty cars squeezed them off the tracks.

The companies involved in these accidents did not comment on them specifically. See what they said about their safety practices here. BNSF did not comment at all.

First image: A 1.5-mile-long train that broke in two in Illinois. Second Image: A 2.2-mile-long train that derailed in Nevada. Credit: First image: Derik Holtmann/Belleville News-Democrat via AP. Second image: Nevada Department of Public Safety via AP.

Finally, in September 2020, the FRA launched a study examining the brake systems in long trains. The agency did not say why it took three years after the Hyndman derailment and the warnings from the union to begin examining the issue. It plans to complete the study this year. Also, late last year, it completed a small survey of rail workers, labor unions and railroad managers. Managers claimed long trains pose no new dangers, but government employees and labor unions said they are concerned.

The National Academies of Sciences, doing a separate assessment of trains longer than 1.4 miles at the request of Congress, must report its findings by June 2024.

Three days after the evacuation of Hyndman, Walls and his family returned home. They’d been gone only 72 hours, but it felt like a reunion with neighbors they hadn’t seen in years. He mowed his grass. It felt good doing something so pedestrian.

But Shaffer and his wife never returned to their doublewide trailer. It wasn’t safe, Shaffer recalls being told by CSX. “Pretty much had to fight with them to get my guns and stuff out of there,” he said. The company paid out a settlement the couple used to buy a big house with a big porch 7 miles out of town, far away from the railroad tracks. But even years later, the derailment haunts him, whether he is waiting uneasily in his truck at a railroad crossing or watching the news. When the East Palestine disaster appears on his TV, he has to get up and walk away. “It’s definitely still with me,” he said.

Sutphin and Mia bounced from her aunt’s house out of town to a hotel with her stepdad then to a house on Myrtle Beach, an upscale vacation town on the coast of South Carolina, and stayed there for a year. Every time an airplane flew over the house, Sutphin shook and ran to the window, afraid that something was about to crash into them. Mia rarely slept through the night. Sutphin financed their long vacation with a $50,000 check from CSX. The railroad also bought her a brand new Hyundai Santa Fe valued at $32,000.

Sutphin and Mia play on a swing set in Sutphin’s grandmother’s yard in Hyndman. Credit: Jamie Kelter Davis for ProPublica

After it nearly razed the town, CSX handed out a lot of money. It bought residents clothing, medicine, food, gas and hotel rooms. It reimbursed businesses for lost revenue. It paid volunteer firefighters every day about $1,000. It gave residents so-called inconvenience fee payments of about $300 a day. It gave one family $10,000 for veterinarian bills and damage to its property. It gave the fire department $190,000. A church pastor said residents welcomed the payments, but he also said they felt like “hush money,” and that’s the effect the money appears to have had on some residents. When ProPublica asked about the derailment, many said that the railroad did “all right by” them. Cleaning up and rebuilding the town and the tracks, according to the FRA, cost $9.6 million. CSX defended the money it spent around town, saying it did not ask the residents to release their legal rights in exchange for the payments. “Such actions,” a spokesperson told ProPublica, “are part of CSX’s industry-leading standard of care when incidents like the derailment in Hyndman occur.”

Walls remembers a CSX official walking up to him while he was standing on the front steps of the charter school on the morning of the derailment, a gray column of smoke from the tanker car still billowing into the sky. “I know we came in and messed your town up,” the official said, “but we’ll make it right before we leave.” Walls appreciates the money CSX spent on the town and its people. But that was the railroad’s responsibility. What would make things right, he said, is “making sure that the trains coming through here are safe.”

Hyndman Credit: Jamie Kelter Davis for ProPublica

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Correction

April 3, 2023: This story originally misstated the brand of Kristina Sutphin’s car. It is a Hyundai Santa Fe, not a Honda.