Trump, Ohio, Train Brakes, and Deregulation

On February 17 2023, the following image, which referenced former United States President Donald Trump, the February 3 2023 Ohio train derailment, and environmental regulations, appeared on Imgur and quickly made its way across platforms:

A viral image of a “death plume” in Ohio formed the base of the collaged image, alongside indicators that the image showed East Palestine, Ohio. Text at the top of the image said:

Fact Check

Claim: Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s deregulation efforts included the rollback of train braking and safety provisions in 2017; Trump tweeted about deregulation in January 2018.

Description: A popular Imgur post suggested that Trump rolled back regulations regarding electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes on trains carrying hazardous flammable materials, initially introduced under the Obama administration. Specifically, these regulations were reportedly intended to prevent fiery derailments of such trains.


Rating Explanation: The claim is validated by news from late 2017 and onward, taking into account that brake requirements introduced under the Obama administration were indeed reversed during Trump’s presidency in 2017. The rollback decision is also documented in the Federal Register in a document titled ‘Miscellaneous Amendments to Brake System Safety Standards and Codification of Waivers’.

Legislation was passed under President Obama that made it a legal requirement for trains carrying hazardous flammable materials to have [electronically controlled pneumatic] ECP brakes, but this was rescinded in 2017 by the Trump administration.

In the lower right corner of the image, a real and easily validated January 2018 tweet by Donald Trump appeared. It addressed the rollback of regulations:

Google Trends data for the seven-day period ending February 17 2023 showed “Breakout” levels of search interest for queries involving former U.S. President Barack Obama, Trump, ECP brakes, and the Ohio train derailment. Searches included: “Ohio train brakes,” Trump train brakes,” “Trump train braking,” “Ohio train spill,” “Trump rolls back train,” “Trump train brake,” “Trump EPA,” “ECP brakes Trump,” “What caused the Ohio derailment,” “what caused the Ohio train derailment,” and “Trump rolls back train braking.”

On December 5 2017, Reuters published “U.S. DOT drops requirement for braking system on crude rail cars,” reporting that the Obama administration introduced requirements mandating ECP brakes to “prevent fiery derailments.” At the beginning, the outlet noted that the Department of Transportation “reversed [the] decision”:

The U.S. Department of Transportation has reversed a decision requiring crude oil rail tank cars to be fitted with an advanced breaking system designed to prevent fiery derailments.

The requirement to install so-called electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes was included in a package of safety reforms unveiled by the Obama administration in 2015 in response to a series of deadly derailments that grew out of the U.S. shale boom.

On December 20 2018, the Associated Press published a story with the headline, “US miscalculated benefit of better train brakes.” In passing, the AP attributed the initial regulation to Obama, and its rollback to Trump:

President Donald Trump’s administration miscalculated the potential benefits of putting better brakes on trains that haul explosive fuels when it scrapped an Obama-era rule over cost concerns, The Associated Press has found.

A government analysis used to justify the cancellation omitted up to $117 million in estimated future damages from train derailments that could be avoided by using electronic brakes. Revelation of the error stoked renewed criticism [in December 2018] from the rule’s supporters, who called the analysis biased.

Department of Transportation officials acknowledged the mistake after it was discovered by the AP during a review of federal documents. They said a correction will be published to the federal register.

But transportation spokesman Bobby Fraser said the decision not to require the brakes would stand under a Congressional act that said the costs couldn’t exceed the rule’s benefits … Safety advocates, transportation union leaders and Democratic lawmakers oppose the administration’s decision to kill the brake rule, which was included in a package of rail safety measures enacted in 2015 under President Barack Obama following dozens of accidents by trains hauling oil and ethanol in the U.S. and Canada.

That reporting hinged on an AP analysis of federal documents; it explained:

… in making their cost-benefit calculations, government economists left out the most common type of derailments in which spilled and burning fuel causes property damage but no mass casualties, the AP found. Equipping fuel trains with electronic brakes would reduce damages from those derailments by an estimated $48 million to $117 million, according to Department of Transportation estimates that were left out of the administration’s final tally.

Including the omitted benefits reduces the net cost of the requirement to as low as $63 million under one scenario laid out by the agency. Other scenarios put the net cost at more than $200 million.

Transportation spokesman Fraser said that would not have changed [the] decision to cancel the electronic brake requirement because of the cost.

The AP also reported that a spokesperson for the Association of American Railroads spokesperson said that the move to rescind the Obama rule was “in line with the requirements set forth by Congress, which passed a 2015 measure saying the Department of Transportation must repeal the braking requirement if expected costs exceed benefits.”

In December 2018, “Miscellaneous Amendments to Brake System Safety Standards and Codification of Waivers” was published in the Federal Register.

A popular February 17 2023 Imgur post asserted that former United States President Donald Trump rescinded Obama-era regulations that made it a legal requirement for trains carrying hazardous flammable materials to have ECP brakes. News from late 2017 onward validated the claim, making it clear that brake requirements introduced under the Obama administration were reversed in 2017.