On February 3, 2023, in the early morning, an eastbound Norfolk Southern Railway general merchandise freight train derailed 38 railcars on main track 1 of the NS Fort Wayne Line of the Keystone Division in East Palestine, Ohio. Eleven tank cars carrying hazardous materials ignited fuelling fires that damaged an additional twelve non-derailed railcars. The derailment was caused by an overheated wheel bearing, and even video footage show sparks flying from underneath the train before the tragic derailment.

Although no human fatalities, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimate that more than 43,000 animals have died in and around East Palestine roughly three weeks after the train derailment.

Officials have also estimated that over 38,222 minnows and around 5,550 other species – such as other fish, crayfish and amphibians were killed during the derailment over a five mile span of the disaster.

According to Jennifer Homendy, the Safety Board Chair, this accident was 100% preventable and .. There is no accident… Every single event that we investigate is preventable,” with that “The NTSB has one goal, and that is safety and ensuring that this never happens again.”

Unfortunately, the horrific and preventable accident has raised major concerns as investigators now pore over endless procedures, and practices and has further erupted concerned citizens in East Palestine Ohio, but also this major incident has also raised concerns in other railway jurisdictions no doubt asking: what are the risks of this happening in our jurisdiction?

Five of the thirty-eight derailed train cars were carrying more than 115,000 gallons of vinyl chloride, and exposure to high levels of vinyl chloride can increase cancer risk or even cause death.

There are already reports coming in from residents complaining about feeling sick after hazardous chemicals have seeped into the air, water and soil in their community. Residents are experiencing headaches, dizziness, bloody noses, and other health issues which they did not have prior to the crash.

What is even more concerning is the recent research from Texas A&M University and Carnegie Mellon where their reports have detected that nine of the 50 chemicals have health risks and consequences to residents. They also highlighted the the chemical risks of Acrolein which is severely irritating to the eyes, mucous membranes, respiratory tract, and skin. The nine chemicals identified are all of major of concern and are known to significantly increase cancer risks.

The clean-up is now well underway and over 1.7 million gallons of contaminated liquid have been removed from the derailment site. Also, over 5,000 cubic yards of soil has been removed, and much of it has gone to Michigan to the US Ecology Wayne Disposal site, although it seems with inefficient communication to Michigan state, further raising concerns on operational practices.

How can Artificial Intelligence (AI) help in disasters like this?

There are many AI strategies that can be applied to improve health and safety of preventing rail car disasters. Here are a few that I have thought of:

  1. Deploy Internet of Things (IoT) sensor SMARTER technology can be placed inside all the rail cars and rail tracks to sense over heating risks and provide automatic safety controls versus relying only on human interventions. BlackBerry Radar has state of the art built-in sensors connecting to an Internet of Things platform, which integrates sensor data, applies analytics and transmits information to applications. Other innovative temperature sensor technology from Sensata, can monitor the temperature of the railway tracks and this data set could be combined with Blackberry data set creating a very powerful analytics AI dashboard. These applications recommend actions and detect possible issues before they occur.
  2. Design a 360 AI Ecosystem Predictive Model – tracking data of all the health risks from this disaster on the environmental risks, medical health risks in the local community. A well designed AI model can predict the total cost risks, # of health risks and community support needs as a result of this disaster.
  3. Establish a Citizen Engagement 7×24 Monitoring Intelligence System – provide an application for all concerned citizens to have access to a health and safety daily check in system, classifying moods, concerns, and using AI natural language processing (NLP) methods to analyze all the verbatims and track over time sentiment and analyze diverse stakeholder groups. Event polling does not provide real-time daily insights nor often do these older market research methods, apply advanced AI intelligence methods. In addition, these new systems can automatically classify patterns and predict risks.
  4. Monitor all Internet and Social Media Communication on the risks to political stakeholders using AI for advanced pattern and ecosystem influence mapping.
  5. Invest in Water System Intelligence monitoring chemicals and soil health risks using AI.
  6. Deploy Mindfulness Employee or Citizen Engagement Solutions for the Norfolk Southern Railway to track both employee (internal) moods and also (external) customer moods. Concerns on mental health and wellbeing also significantly impacts the employees of a company in disastrous situations like this. Health and Safety is a key priority for companies like the Canadian Railway company like: CN Rail. Being fit to serve is increasingly a priority as Post-Covid has raised many issues/concerns on health, and mental wellbeing. See my prior articles here. Other leading companies focused on health and wellness (mindfulness AI solutions) can also be found here. Impacts of mood is increasing big business as it predicts futures on so many levels.
  7. Analyze all Health and Safety Policies across all RailWay companies and let AI help determine the best one, as well as construct one. Transport Canada has a good Policy see here. The USA Health and Transportation Health and Safety Policy is here.


This horrific railway tragedy could have been prevented with better intelligence and operating practices. Artificial intelligence can modernize the railway industry and help to prevent accidents like the recent one in Palestine, Ohio. Seven examples have been identified and there is no question in my mind that AI can be a modernization strategy for creating a more intelligent community in Palestine Ohio. It is most deserving for government and industry support to bring the best AI innovations forward to help plan for a better future to this community tragedy, but also it creates an innovation learning lab opportunity to create a role model smart community for the railroad industry at large to be proud of.

Developing rapidly a holistic and integrated AI strategy and creating solutions like those identified will allow diverse stakeholders to create a stronger sense of community purpose – and most importantly track what’s on the minds of all the stakeholders. This improvement alone is one very smart strategy to advance an improvement journey ensuring increased intelligence and sense-making.

Research Sources:

Mosely, Sterling, Feb 24, 2023. Breaking Researchers Release Alarming Findings about Last Health Effects for East Palestine Residents from Hazardous Chemicals. DC Enquirer.

Norfolk Southern Railway Train Derailment with Subsequent Hazardous Material Release and Fires Source (Preliminary Report)

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