ORLANDO, Fla. — 9 Investigates allegations of lax inspections, blocked intersections and dangerous chemicals in railcars, putting communities at risk.
Experts worry a devastating derailment like what happened in East Palestine, Ohio, could happen again, because not enough is being done to make the rail industry safer.
We teamed up with investigative units from across the country to look into what’s really traveling along our tracks and what needs to change to keep you safe.
Running parallel to U.S. 1, through neighborhoods and near parks, Florida East Coast railway carries freight along the same tracks where we’ll soon see high-speed rail service via Brightline in Brevard County.
“What we have here, is the deadliest passenger rail system in the country, sharing the tracks with deadly hazardous materials,” Susan Mehiel said.
Mehiel is with a group called the Florida Alliance for Safe Trains, which has been concerned about the addition of high-speed passenger service on the shared tracks since it was announced.
Mehiel knows exactly what’s being carried on FEC railcars.
“Liquified propane gas is on there, as is anhydrous ammonia, and a couple of others that are extremely volatile and deadly,” Mehiel said.
Not to mention the most potentially dangerous, liquified natural gas. LNG powers FEC’s locomotives and is also on the tanker cars behind the engines.
“LNG is the scariest of all in terms of HAZMAT,” Mehiel said. “And so if we’ve learned anything, we need stronger regulations here to make us more confident that there’s not going to be a disaster like that.”
Mehiel’s group isn’t alone in its concerns.
“We’ve been screaming into the bullhorn about this for almost seven years now, and it felt like no one was listening to us,” Jared Cassity said.
Cassity is the Chief of Safety for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, or SMART -- the largest union representing workers in the railroad industry.
He claims members are reporting lax inspection standards for trains across the country and concerns about the length of trains moving through communities.
Cassity warns with longer trains becoming more common as a cost-saving measure, more crossings could be blocked in the event of a derailment.
The day we were in Melbourne, we watched a Florida East Coast train pass within 90 seconds, but the American Association of Railroads found half of the trains used in 2021 were longer than a mile, with the maximum length around 2 miles.
“I’m concerned because the practices that were in play, for the most part, prior to East Palestine are still at play in the industry,” Cassity said. “There has been no emergency order, if you will, to change those things.”
Still, in Central Florida’s largest city, HAZMAT experts say they’re prepared.
“One of the benefits that we have with Orlando is that the freight coming through here is moving at low speed,” Orlando fire District Chief Derek Schaumann said. “It’s moving at about 30 mph. So typically, a derailment at low speed like that, at 30 mph, the cars will lay onto their side and slide to a stop.”
Schaumann has run HAZMAT training at Valencia’s College of Public Safety and has trained HAZMAT crews around the country.
He spoke to 9 Investigates at Orlando’s Fire Station 1, steps away from where CSX trains move freight, including chlorine, anhydrous ammonia, sodium hydroxide and propane through downtown Orlando in the overnight hours.
He said that timing is another safety measure -- moving through the area while many people are sleeping.
“We have less traffic on the roadways, less chance of a railroad crossing incursion with another vehicle. Those things really help to reduce the risk that’s presented,” Schaumann said.
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