The derailment and fire involving a chemical-laden freight train in Baltimore last month is just the latest in a pattern of rail accidents on the rise since 1997 - about the time that a string of multibillion-dollar rail mergers left the industry financially strapped.
That timing is no coincidence, safety advocates, economists and union leaders say. Maintenance has suffered, they contend, because of merger-related layoffs that have reduced the number of inspectors who monitor tracks and equipment. Rail traffic, meanwhile, has grown steadily, with trains carrying increasingly heavy loads.
No one can say what role, if any, track conditions played in the derailment July 18 of a 60-car CSX train carrying hazardous chemicals through the Howard Street Tunnel. Investigators say it will take months to determine the cause, and sources familiar with the inquiry say that nothing so far points to track or equipment failure.
Nevertheless, the derailment has become one more statistic in a nationwide trend of increasing accidents.
From 1997 through last year, the rail accident rate climbed from 3.5 accidents per million miles of freight and passenger travel to 4.1 per million miles, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
The figures show derailments up more than 21 percent, collisions up nearly 18 percent and signal failures up nearly 80 percent during that time. Over the same period, the number of hours worked by railroad employees declined by 2.6 percent, FRA statistics show.
"You've got a very large system that's under heavy pressure that is being staffed by fewer people," said Steve Moss of RailWatch, a national rail safety advocacy group.
Several serious rail accidents have occurred recently. In March, Amtrak's California Zephyr derailed in Iowa, killing one passenger and injuring 90. Last year, a Union Pacific train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in Louisiana, forcing the evacuation of 3,000 people from their homes.
The number of accidents involving hazardous materials also rose, from 472 in 1997 to 650 last year, according to federal rail statistics.
"The system is breaking down because it's not being kept up properly and there's more strain on it," Moss said.
The Federal Railroad Administration and railroad companies vehemently disagree.
"The vast majority of the accidents are at the way low end of the scale," said FRA Safety Director George Gavalla. "You don't really see that escalation [of accidents] on the main tracks."
Most of the accidents, he said, occur in rail yards and are minor. And although the overall accident rate might have increased, the number of fatalities has dropped 41 percent, he said.
"We're putting our emphasis on where the public risk is, and we're driving down that risk," Gavalla said.
Accidents this year are running about 30 percent behind last year's pace. Despite the Baltimore chemical-train derailment, the percentage of rail accidents involving hazardous materials is also down this year.
Still, many observers contend that economics is changing the nature of railroading, with unpredictable consequences for business and safety.
In congressional testimony this spring, transportation analysts depicted a struggling industry that is starving for revenue and capital to maintain its costly infrastructure of tracks and trains.
Even railroad executives, while maintaining that tracks, signals and locomotives are in excellent condition, acknowledge that competitive pressures have forced them to curtail spending on maintaining and expanding the rail network to handle growing traffic.
Many think the increase in accidents in the late 1990s is rooted in the series of major rail combinations that snarled operations and reflected significant economic pressures on the merged railroads.
CSX and Norfolk Southern agreed in 1997 to pay $10.2 billion to acquire and divide Philadelphia-based Conrail.
The same year, Burlington Northern won a bidding war to buy the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. The price was $4.1 billion.
Union Pacific, the loser in the bidding war, then spent about the same amount to buy Southern Pacific Rail Corp. in a bid to stay competitive.
Since then, the number of inspectors and maintenance workers nationally has dropped about 10 percent, according to the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, the union that represents those workers.
"Unfortunately, the cost-cutting falls heavy on the maintenance departments," said Rick Inclima, safety director for the union.
"We're not driving the trains; we're maintaining the tracks. We don't generate revenue; we generate value in the infrastructure. They view us more as a cost item than a revenue item."
Concerned about negative economic effects of the mergers, the Surface Transportation Board, a federal regulatory agency, moved last year to freeze rail combinations.
Although the railroads acknowledge that staffing is down, they say inspections and maintenance have not been affected.
"Our frequency of inspections has not changed," said Charles J. Wehrmeister, vice president of safety for Norfolk Southern. "The safety rules and regulations for railroads have done nothing but tighten and increase." Company officials could not immediately provide numbers on changes in staffing or maintenance spending.
Robert Bernard, chief safety officer for CSX, acknowledged that "we did take our eye off the ball" on maintenance in the mid-1990s. One result was a critical audit last year by the FRA, which cited CSX for serious track problems systemwide, including the stretch of track from Baltimore to Philadelphia, in which the Howard Street Tunnel is a vital link.
In the aftermath of the audit, Bernard said, the company has made considerable improvements in safety.
CSX spent nearly $200 million to fix its tracks and now addresses maintenance problems as soon as they're identified, he said.
Maintenance budget up
The company's annual maintenance budget has grown from $278 million to $537 million. And although CSX acknowledges that its maintenance crews are down 8 percent since 1996, company officials say they are using crews more efficiently and that the decline has not affected the ability to make quick repairs.
Federal regulators, satisfied with the company's progress, lifted a compliance agreement they had imposed at the time of the audit. As of April, the company's accident rate had dropped from 4.2 accidents per million miles traveled to 2.9, the industry average.
"I don't know what other companies are doing, but we have a huge safety push going on," Bernard said. "We have zero deferred maintenance."
Union officials argue that staffing reductions are taking a toll, though. They estimate that the company delays as much as half of its repair work.
"CSX has had layoff after layoff, and we are very, very deprived of workers in the area," said H.B. Wilson, vice chairman of the maintenance workers union.
Though the shortfalls might not affect the number of inspections, they do curtail the amount of time workers have to perform them, according to the union.
"The issue is the quality of the inspection," said Inclima, the union's safety director.
In the past, a maintenance crew would usually arrive once a problem was found, and the inspector would be free to move on to continue inspecting other track, he said.
"Now, if the inspector finds a defect, the company may require him to correct it, taking more time away from inspections," Inclima said. "At the end of the day, he may still have 30 miles of track to inspect and only an hour to do it. That is a reality."
Gavalla, the federal rail safety chief, said that even if the railroads are spending less on track maintenance, it shouldn't necessarily lead to an increase in accidents.
"If the regulations are followed," he said, "it should mean slowdowns on the track, not an escalation of accidents. Our statistics don't really show a problem since the mergers."
Sun electronic news editor Mike Himowitz contributed to this article.