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William Dorsch

Cape Henlopen High School

Environmental Justice


Off The Rails: Environmental Hazards and Injustices of Modern Day Megatrains 

In a world with a rapidly changing climate, many companies are attempting to reduce their carbon footprint. One way to reduce this footprint is to have their goods transported primarily by trains, instead of by trucks. Compared to trucks, trains produce less carbon per tonnage of cargo, which benefits the earth’s atmosphere. In addition to lower carbon emissions, trains are more fuel efficient and take vehicles off of the nation’s roads, reducing the maintenance needed on road infrastructure. With all of the benefits that trains offer, why is having more freight transported by rail a bad thing? How are trains leading to environmental injustice? As trains are being used more frequently as a way to combat climate change, there are dire consequences for the communities closely surrounding the railways. 

Railroads operate by moving freight from place to place, from producers to consumers. Economies of scale benefit the transportation industry by making bulk shipping more cost effective than shipping by smaller capacity means. Trains are an extremely efficient example of economies of scale, using only one or two large engines to move hundreds of trucks worth of goods all at once over long distances. As more and more freight is being taken off of the roads and put onto the rails, more rail cars are being used over the entirety of a railroad’s network. This leads to either more trains on the railway or more rail cars per train. The latter becomes a problem when railroads favor saving costs by adding more rail cars onto existing trains, which can lead to dangerous situations if done improperly. The primary danger of longer trains is the greater risk of derailments. 

Why do trains derail more when they are longer? Some of the factors that can lead to derailments in longer trains are subpar maintenance, equipment failure, and improper balancing of trains. “Long trains have an accordion effect where they expand and contract as they brake and accelerate. Empty cars brake faster than heavy ones, and if the empty cars are in front, the full ones will push against them, possibly forcing the empty cars up and off the tracks.” (Gordon). With the increasing popularity among class 1 railroads, such as CSX, Norfolk Southern, and BNSF, to have trains spanning nearly three miles of track at once, the placement of  specific loaded and unloaded cars can become an oversight. This has the potential to cause derailments if proper balancing and braking protocols are not followed. 

In addition, another reason trains derail is equipment failure. Many older, and even some newer rail cars, were not designed to withstand the force of 32 million pounds of cargo pulling on their couplers. According to an experienced railroad engineer, “These trains exceed the coupler and drawbar limits of the very cars themselves” (DeLay). Another reason that long trains pose derailment issues is that they do not fit into railroad sidings. This can cause collisions where the rear of a train is hanging out into the mainline of the railroad. “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 1.5mile-long Union Pacific train” (Dan, Sanders). This goes to show that railroads are operating their trains well beyond what their equipment and rail infrastructure were designed to handle. As a result of this combination of negligent practices, the United States has seen an increasing number of major derailments, with large numbers of cars jumping the tracks at once, some of which have been carrying hazardous materials which can cause major environmental damage. 

As trains become longer, and derailments continue to occur, how does this lead to environmental injustice? The copious amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses being released into our atmosphere are encouraging more transportation by less polluting means, such as trains, in an effort to reduce the transportation sector’s carbon footprint. This leads to longer trains, which begin to develop these unique issues as they get longer. The injustice originates from the location of railroad tracks through communities. According to Homer Hoyt’s sector urban model, poor residents will locate close to transportation routes, which include shared freight and passenger railroad lines. This is because the land and housing is cheaper than in other areas. Wealthier residents locate away from the poor residents, far from the rail lines. This causes the poor residents of a city to be directly affected when major derailments occur, while wealthier residents are only given a scare by the seven o’clock news report on the incident. In addition, many small farming communities and community college towns are built along rail lines. These towns are frequently in the lower to middle class demographic. Why does this 

matter? Less wealthy residents are generally unable to relocate away from active rail lines as home and property value tend to increase with distance from the tracks. For these communities along the railway, the threat of derailment of a three mile long train near their home is a constant danger they have to live with. An example of this is the recent derailment of a 1.7 mile long train in East Palestine, Ohio. This horrific accident occurred in the less wealthy areas of the town, releasing many toxic chemicals and introducing a major environmental hazard to the surrounding area. 

Bringing this topic closer to home, one major rail line runs in northern Delaware through Wilmington: the Philadelphia Subdivision. As this subdivision is part of CSX transportation, a major class 1 railroad, many massive multi-mile trains run through the state on a daily basis, posing a risk of derailments to all the closeby New Castle County communities. In addition, Norfolk Southern operates a smaller line, the DelMarVa Secondary, stretching nearly the entire state from north to south. While Delaware has not had a major derailment in a long time, it is still very possible with two class 1 railroads running through the state, both trying to use longer and longer freight trains to maximize efficiency. 

What can you do about this, and what can local youth do about this? This issue regarding railroading does not only affect our state, but nearly every state in the United States of America. Given the nationwide scope of this issue, the primary way to try and fight against unsafe railroad practices affecting everybody alongside the railroad tracks is to write or petition to our state representative in Congress. Our representative is Lisa Blunt Rochester, and you can write to propose fighting for safer railroad practices, specifically, an end to precision scheduled railroading. 

In conclusion, as trains become a more popular method of transporting freight across the country, trains will continue to get longer and longer due to short term profit driven railroads. This will cause unique issues with trains, possibly increasing safety hazards and derailments in railside communities. These communities are generally not wealthy regions and cannot afford to go elsewhere to avoid railroad related catastrophes. Communities in our own state are potentially facing these issues. As youth, it is our responsibility to fight these environmental injustices by writing to Congress representatives for consideration in future legislation. 


DeLay, Matthew. “‘It Is Getting Worse. People Are Leaving.’” Railway Age, 25 Apr. 2022, 

Gordon, Aaron. “‘It’s Going to End Up Like Boeing’: How Freight Rail Is Courting Catastrophe.”, Vice, 22 Mar. 2021, 

Shwartz, Dan, and Topher Sanders. “The True Dangers of Long Trains.” ProPublica, 3 Apr. 2023, 


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