AUSTIN (KXAN) — In the aftermath of a Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, viewers reached out to KXAN to find out if the chemical vinyl chloride could be transported through Austin.

According to the Texas Department of Transportation’s maps, Union Pacific (UP) is the main railroad running through Texas’ capital city. A UP spokesperson said they, like all major railroad companies, are a federally mandated transporter of vinyl chloride and other hazardous chemicals, such as fertilizer, chlorine, crude oil, etc.

The federal mandate is the “Common Carrier Obligation of Railroads.” It establishes railroad companies must provide “transportation or service on reasonable request” and cannot refuse service because it would be inconvenient or unprofitable for the company.

If a supplier pays to move their vinyl chloride by railroad, and meets other statutory requirements, then the railroad company must oblige.

Then, the answer is a probable yes; if not vinyl chloride, it will be other hazardous materials. The UP spokesperson declined to specify which hazardous chemicals are transported through Austin.

What is vinyl chloride?

The National Institute of Health classifies vinyl chloride as a highly flammable gas, with a near-exclusive use in the production of polyvinyl chloride or PVC. That compound is used in cars, construction and in many everyday plastics.

The high demand has earned vinyl chloride a spot as one of the top petrochemicals in the world by production.

However, before the chemical becomes those products, it must be transported. To do this, the gas is pressurized as a liquid. It can then be transported by rail or by truck.

Exposure to the chemical can:

  • Affect the central and peripheral nervous system
  • Cause liver damage
  • Raynaud’s phenomenon (joint and muscle pain, and scleroderma-like skin changes)
  • Lead to cancer, particularly in the liver

Keeping the cars moving

“Somehow ‘We tried to warn you,’ just doesn’t quite cut it,” reads a statement from the  International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM). “For the past several years, rail labor unions – ourselves included – have been ringing the alarm bells about the dangers of the cost-cutting business model, so-called ‘Precision Scheduled Railroading.'”

That statement, published on Thursday, is a response to the East Palestine derailment. IAM and other railroad worker unions authorized a strike in 2022, claiming railroad companies’ refused to give workers paid sick leave or address other safety concerns.

Norfolk Southern (NS) engages in the practice, as does Union Pacific. According to UP’s website, PSR enables them to connect railcars “as soon as local service allows” in order to keep train cars moving.

“Where railroads previously focused on moving trains, PSR shifts that focus to moving cars,” UP’s website reads. “So, instead of waiting for a long train to be built, trains are always moving and cars are picked up on schedule, regardless of train length. Velocity and train length are still important to railroads, but now, the focus on moving cars takes precedence.”

As it concerns the Ohio derailment, IAM claims the practice allows companies to cut corners with important safety inspections, often replacing human inspectors with automated detectors.

“The PSR model is exploiting loopholes for federal inspection requirements,” IAM’s statement reads. “Federal regulations require inspections by a qualified mechanical inspector (aka Carmen) at each location where train cars are added to a train. This requirement is often ignored or is substituted by allowing operating crews, not Qualified Mechanical Inspectors, to perform pre-departure inspections and/or brake tests.”

In the National Transportation Safety Bureau’s preliminary findings, the agency’s investigators claim the disaster was 100% preventable. The agency has not yet determined what caused the derailment.

The findings also claim the NTSB will “focus on the wheelset and bearing; tank car design and derailment damage; a review of the accident response, including the venting and burning of the vinyl chloride; railcar design and maintenance procedures and practices; NS use of wayside defect detectors; and NS railcar inspection practices.”

KXAN reached out to the Texas Department of Transportation and Department of Public Safety for information about state laws covering the safe transportation of vinyl chloride and other chemicals but did not hear back.