The Washington Post
Regulator urges railroads to improve use of safety detectors
The Federal Railroad Administration issued a formal safety advisory Tuesday urging railroads to improve their use of trackside safety detectors, which failed to provide enough warning about a dangerously hot bearing before an Ohio derailment in early February.
Norfolk Southern’s system of detectors alerted the crew of the derailed train moments before it came off the tracks, according to preliminary findings from the National Transportation Safety Board. The detectors are not subject to federal regulation, but in its advisory, the FRA recommended that railroads review their thresholds for when the detectors sound an alarm and how crews and railroad employees respond to warnings.
“Personnel should be encouraged and empowered to develop procedures that may temporarily impact operations, but maximize safety, just as those executing the procedures should be empowered to strictly adhere to those procedures, even if it delays a train,” according to the advisory, signed by Federal Railroad Administrator Amit Bose.
The advisory cites two other recent Norfolk Southern derailments in making the case for a review of the detectors. The railroad said it could not immediately comment on the advisory but referred to a statement last week noting that it had inspected detectors near the derailment site and found they were operating as designed.
Responding to the FRA’S recommendations, the Association of American Railroads said the industry has a “long history” of pushing safety measures and has “adopted voluntary practices” such as the deployment of wayside detectors and automated track inspection technologies.
“As we continue to learn more about the cause of the accident in East Palestine, the industry is reviewing its practices and procedures to determine next steps to further enhance safety and target the root cause of this accident,” the association said.
While the order does not compel railroads to take action, it marks an initial effort by the U.S. Department of Transportation to tighten train safety after the derailment about three weeks ago. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has issued several safety measures and has called on the industry to offer paid sick leave and for Congress to raise fines for railroad safety violations.
On Monday, Buttigieg wrote to Norfolk Southern chief executive Alan Shaw and other railroad bosses, calling on them to join by the end of the week a confidential safety reporting system used by Amtrak and some smaller railroads. The program is designed to allow workers to report risks without fear of reprisal.
“It is unacceptable that Norfolk Southern could be satisfied with the status quo,” Buttigieg wrote. “Inaction is not an option.”
The train in East Palestine passed three detectors in the lead-up to the derailment, according to the NTSB. As it passed the first two, detectors registered elevated temperatures that weren’t high enough to sound an alert or require the crew to take immediate action.
By the time it crossed the third detector, the temperature of one of the bearings had reached 253 degrees above the surrounding air, but the crew was unable to stop the train before it came off the tracks.
Since 2021, at least five derailments are suspected of being caused by burned wheel bearings, the FRA said in the advisory.
In one of those cases, a 139-car train derailed last summer while traveling through central Georgia after a train car was not properly inspected following warnings about an overheated wheel bearing. The FRA said that on a July 10 trip, the crew of a Norfolk Southern train stopped and inspected the wheel bearing and was instructed to continue the trip and “keep an eye [on] the axle over the next couple of detectors.”
The train car “was not inspected by mechanical personnel or set out for repair” before it was added to a different train, which derailed two days later, according to the report.
In October, another train derailed in Ohio after smoke was detected coming from a wheel bearing. The train was stopped, and the crew requested mechanical support. An electrician who was sent to inspect the car two hours later determined that the smoke had stopped and the bearing had cooled, and the crew was instructed to continue the trip. The train derailed after traveling seven miles with a burned wheel bearing. The FRA said that molten paraffin wax spilled and that the derailment caused widespread power outages.
The FRA is urging railroads to evaluate their usage of the trackside devices, including looking at thresholds for alerts that would trigger action and real-time data analysis as a criterion for inspections. The agency is also recommending that railroads ensure proper training of crews responsible for maintaining and inspecting the sensors. Train cars that have had hot box alerts should be properly inspected, the advisory recommends.