Ohio Derailment Highlights Rail Safety Locally

Could derailment with hazardous chemical spill happen here?

At night around eastern Springfield, it’s not hard to forget the presence of a railroad line that runs on a north-south trajectory along I-95. The trains run all night long. When thinking of the recent train accident in Ohio, many may be wondering, are we safe from a similar catastrophe?

On Feb. 3, at 8:55 p.m., 38 cars of a 150-car Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. This caused a fire and nearby residents were told to evacuate. The train was carrying toxic materials which spilled into a nearby stream and killed many fish in the stream. Following the derailment, the Environmental Protection Agency began sampling the air and water around that area to determine the danger to the nearby residents.

Following the Ohio train derailment, there was another train derailment reported, this one in West Virginia on March 8 that resulted in an “unknown” amount of diesel to spill into New River.

How close is too close? In some places, townhouses look right out to the tracks.


Northern Virginia has been on the safety radar though, says Connor Spielmaker Sr. Communications Manager at Norfolk Southern. The actual train accident numbers are down, he said. Norfolk Southern partnered with emergency responders from Alexandria last summer for the latest Operation Awareness & Response training session aboard the Norfolk Southern HazMat Safety Train. Team members from the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department learned firsthand from safety experts about the fundamental steps required for an adequate response to a locomotive emergency.

Spielmaker did add that there are other freight carriers in the Northern Virginia area too. “Norfolk Southern is not the only railroad in the DMV,” he said.

Fairfax County has a Hazardous Materials Response Team that consistently conducts training specific to railway incidents. They coordinate efforts with the Northern Virginia Regional Intelligence Community to gather information about the hazardous materials that are transported through this area to develop effective and realistic emergency response plans for any hazardous spills that may occur, said the Fairfax County Department of Emergency Management and Fire and Rescue.

A Fairfax County Emergency Operations Plan was created as a framework for the management of major emergencies in the county which includes a plan for rail and hazardous materials. They coordinate with other area jurisdictions to create the Railroad Emergency Response Manual so they have a consistent way to respond to rail emergencies.

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation noted that railroads have invested more than $250 billion in the past two decades to create a safer rail network. While DRPT is not directly involved with freight operations, it supports freight by encouraging truck-to-rail diversion, said DRPT spokesperson Amy Friedenberger. Virginia has a statewide rail plan that is updated every four years, and in the 2022 plan, which came out in September, projects in the Alexandria and Springfield include station improvements, the Franconia-Springfield bypass, and a Franconia to Lorton third mainline.

Zero Accident Goal

According to the Association of American Railroads, they are taking safety actions since the derailment in Ohio and have a goal of zero accidents. This includes fixing the loose wheel defect, adding hot bearing detectors, tightening bearing inspection rules, training more first responders, and implementing fire improvement enhancements on tank cars. Despite the crash in Ohio, the FTA said that the accident rate for hazmat transportation is down 78% percent since 2000.

“Even though data show railroads are safe, the industry believes that the East Palestine derailment earlier this year, and its aftermath, require railroads and freight shippers alike to lead with actions that restore trust and will further improve freight rail safety,” according to the Association of American Railroads blog.