Railroad Infrastructure Safety: New Jersey Train Accident a Cause for Concern

Train derailments, train accidents, and catastrophes involving US railroads can be incredibly complex to litigate. Similar to airplane crashes and trucking accidents, train accidents may involve multiple parties, serious personal injuries, wrongful death and massive cleanup efforts. Additionally, the maintenance and operation of a train may be facilitated by one or more corporations; the rails, bridges, and intersections may be handled by multiple private and public entities as well as private-public partnerships. The security of freight, safety of the railroad tracks and whether or not operator error is to blame all combine to create complex legal challenges.

In the aftermath of a derailment, collision, or other such train accident, an investigation by local, state, county, private and federal authorities will certainly commence. Evidence may be scattered across miles of urban or rural terrain and may also be buried beneath tons of rubble. As in the case of the New Jersey derailment, evidence may also be covered in toxic chemicals after a bridge collapsed beneath the massive freight. This recent collapse is a reminder that many of the nation's bridges and tracks may be unsafe.

Approximately 50 homes were evacuated in the aftermath of this latest catastrophe that has led to concerns about toxic material getting into area drinking water. The National Transportation Safety Board is continuing its investigation and the cleanup continues in the town of Paulsboro, N.J, a small town across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. The railroad tracks are owned and operated by Conrail who have their own investigators on the scene along with local authorities and federal officials, including members of the Coast Guard. As of early December, hazardous material crews continue cleaning up the spilled vinyl chloride and wreckage. Residents who were evacuated are still being kept out of the area and schools are being kept closed as a precaution. In addition to these struggles and complexities, the freight load of toxic chemicals—a gas used in PVC pipe—spilled into the creek below. 

Recent announcements from the Philadelphia Water Company indicate that the chemical has not impacted area drinking water (“Frustrations Rise Among Train Derailment Evacuees”). So far, no serious injuries have been reported either from the initial crash or hazardous material. This event is no doubt a headache for hundreds and perhaps thousands of people but it is also a symbol of a potentially troubling future involving American's railways.

Railroads are expected to become increasingly important to the nation's shipping needs. Perhaps the train will never regain the prominence it held in the nineteenth century but, according to multiple projections, freight demand will almost double from 16 billion tons today to 31.4 billion tons in 2035 (http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/fact-sheet/rail). No matter how safe and well-maintained the system is, errors and accidents will occur. If the infrastructure is not maintained and improved, the unavoidable risk of tragedy rises exponentially.

Because private companies are almost entirely responsible for building and maintaining the rails and many bridges, they may often put profit over safety. Of course a safe rail is a profitable one but as history has often taught, hard lessons must be learned by corporations before they take the responsible actions. A spate of recent cataclysms involving railroad infrastructure safety should signal an alarm.

Over the summer, a Union Pacific Train derailment in Illinois took the lives of a married couple when the bridge they were under collapsed beneath the train's wreckage. Two female college students were killed in Maryland over the summer when a coal car spilled its cargo in a derailment on an old and narrow bridge in Ellicot City. These are two recent tragic incidents but other derailments and infrastructure failings have occurred as well. A similar crash in Chicago over the summer led to nasty mess involving tons of coal but, thankfully, no one was killed or injured. The New Jersey incident has not resulted in any deaths or injuries but the regularity with which trains derail, bridges collapse and safety measures fail indicate that the nation's heavy reliance on freight trains must be coupled with a greater concern for safety. The next train accident involving unsafe infrastructure may cause more than headaches for those impacted.

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