As accidents go, few of recent memory have grabbed the region's attention like Tuesday's collision and explosion involving a CSX freight train and a trash truck in Rosedale. If Baltimoreans weren't close enough to hear the tooth-rattling blast, they likely noticed the giant plume of dark smoke that rose from the scene and lasted for hours.
Yet, as severe as the crash and derailment were — and considering the potential risk of toxic chemicals that might have been on that train — the outcome was not nearly as bad as feared. Only one person was seriously injured, the retired Baltimore County firefighter who owns a nearby waste collection company and was driving the truck.
The chemicals that spilled and contributed to the conflagration are potentially hazardous but not a serious threat to human health, particularly once the fire was brought under control. Terephthalic acid and sodium chlorate, the chemicals spilled, can both produce harmful gases when burned, but experts generally agreed that the event posed a low risk to the public.
Much of the circumstances of the crash won't be fully understood until investigators examine the scene, sift though the wreckage, interview witnesses and review any other relevant material. But at this early stage it seems likely to be the fault of the truck driver, for either not noticing the oncoming train or failing to give proper distance to it.
Of course, there are other factors to consider — whether the truck suffered a mechanical failure, for instance, or whether the grade crossing deserved a gate rather than a mere stop sign, or whether the train had used its horn sufficiently prior to the crossing — but it's unreasonable to expect a moving freight train to yield under such circumstances. Trains simply don't stop on a dime; the rules of physics don't allow it.
Considering how public this crash was, however, it's likely some people are going to question CSX and railroad safety generally. That's a healthy conversation to have, particularly on the subject of how hazardous materials are transported and the risk posed to communities adjacent to active rail lines. But again, this appears to be a case of preparation paying off — as of Wednesday afternoon, Baltimore County firefighters had no complaints about the cooperation received from CSX or the information provided regarding the train's cargo, a point of contention in years past.
That leaves the safety of railroads generally, a subject that might be on people's minds after the one-two punch of the Rosedale crash on top of the derailment and collision involving two passenger trains in Bridgeport, Conn., on May 17. In that case, early reports have raised concerns about the condition of train tracks, not on driver error.
And here's something else to keep in mind. While grade crossings remain a most serious issue for train safety, the U.S. has made extraordinary progress in addressing the problem. Since 1978, train collisions at grade crossings have dropped by 13,557 annually to 1,960 last year, according to Operation Lifesaver. That's a decline of more than 85 percent.
Considering that freight traffic is on the upswing, that is remarkable. A combination of education, improved engineering and enforcement is credited with that accomplishment. Simply making motorists more aware of the dangers posed at crossings (particularly when a driver misjudges the speed of an oncoming locomotive versus how long it will take to cross the tracks) may be the single most important element of the decades-old effort.
Still, the stakes in a train crash are high, and greater scrutiny is required. Last year's collisions cost 271 lives (down from a peak of 1,115 fatalities in 1976). Tuesday's might have been far worse, not just for the driver but for workers at local businesses and people living in the area, as well as the train crew. We are thankful for that but must also be vigilant. Should the National Transportation Safety Board recommend corrective action, we would expect those recommendations to be adopted by federal regulators.
In the meantime, if there a silver lining to that billowing cloud, it's the reminder of the need to be aware of trains and to give them a wide berth — because they aren't going away. Freight transportation is expected to double by 2035, and Amtrak had record ridership of 31.2 million passengers last year. There are 220,000 private and public crossings in use today, and no matter how many flashing lights, gates and whistles may be installed, none are entirely risk-free.