February 8, 2024

Who Owns the Train?

I have recently heard several radio stories relating to rail safety. The stories were mostly occasioned by the anniversary of the Norfolk Southern freight train derailment at East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3, 2023. More often than not, these stories identify the train involved in the accident as being owned by Norfolk Southern.

Seldom is any train owned by a single railroad in the sense that the locomotive(s) and all the railcars of the train belong to the same railroad, and the train is operated by employees of that railroad. More commonly, a train is operated and dispatched by employees of a given railroad. The locomotives may be owned by that railroad and may be running on that railroad’s tracks, but the railcars making up the train are generally owned by a variety of railroads and other entities, shippers and car lessors. There are many variations on this arrangement—motive power may be supplied by locomotives from multiple railroads, for example—but one railroad is responsible for operating the train, and the cars behind the locomotives have a variety of owners.

The train involved in the East Palestine accident was a Norfolk Southern train, but the train was not owned by Norfolk Southern. Alternatively, it can be said that it was Norfolk Southern’s train or was a train operated by Norfolk Southern. Journalists, take note.

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