The Washington Post
Railroad outlines new safety steps
Norfolk Southern to install more hotbox detectors, starting near site of derailment in East Palestine
Norfolk Southern said Monday that it plans to install 200 more hotbox detectors along its rail lines — beginning near the site of last month’s derailment in East Palestine, Ohio — filling gaps in a network of safety devices designed to catch overheating wheel bearings before they cause a derailment.
The detectors work by measuring infrared emissions from the bearings on passing trains. The train that derailed Feb. 3, causing a fire and chemical spill, had passed three of them as it approached East Palestine. The first two, spaced 10 miles apart, detected elevated temperatures on one bearing, but the readings were not high enough to trigger a warning.
By the time the train passed the third detector 20 miles later, a warning arrived too late for the crew to stop the train before cars derailed, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
An industry-backed study found in 2017 that 15 miles was the optimum distance between detectors, and Norfolk Southern said it will examine its network for stretches exceeding that. It also said it will work with other railroads as it examines how to make use of the detectors, as well as pilot a new generation of scanning technology and add a scanner that can effectively hear problems inside bearings.
Alan H. Shaw, the railroad’s CEO, said preliminary findings by the NTSB make it clear that improving safety will take a “comprehensive industry effort.”
“We are eager to help drive that effort and we are not waiting to take action,” he said in a statement.
The East Palestine derailment and the subsequent burning of vinyl chloride have brought renewed attention to railroad safety, even as the industry points to federal data indicating that conditions have improved significantly in recent decades. The U.S. Transportation Department has been urging railroads to take proactive steps in the wake of the derailment, including examining their use of hotbox detectors.
Norfolk Southern said it operates nearly 1,000 detectors along its rails, conducting more than 2 billion readings each year. The railroad said that, on average, detectors are 13.9 miles apart on its core system but that it would examine spots where gaps are greater than 15 miles and install new detectors where practical.
The NTSB has not found any evidence that the detectors near the East Palestine derailment site were not working properly, but Chair Jennifer Homendy said when investigators released their preliminary findings that if the train had passed another detector sooner, the incident “may not have occurred.” Appearing on Washington Post Live on Monday, Homendy said Norfolk Southern’s new plan was “a good first start.”
The Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, a union representing rail signal workers, has said Norfolk Southern cut positions in recent years involved in maintaining the detectors in the region that includes East Palestine. Asked if the changes announced Monday would include more staff, Norfolk Southern said it “regularly evaluates personnel needs for maintenance and inspection.”
Democrats on the House Oversight Committee, led by Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (Md.), wrote to the railroad Sunday asking about staffing cuts and its history of opposing federal safety regulations. “You must call on the federal government to strengthen transportation safety rules and regulations,” the lawmakers wrote. “You must lead by example and ensure that those you harmed in East Palestine are made whole.”
Congress is considering a bipartisan bill spearheaded by Ohio’s senators that includes a number of safety measures, including the establishment of federal rules for the use of detectors, requiring them every 10 miles on some routes. Shaw is to testify Thursday along with the lead sponsors of the bill at a hearing of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee.
Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) announced Monday that Norfolk Southern had agreed to millions of dollars in financial aid for affected communities in his state, which borders the derailment site. The funds include $5 million to help replace contaminated fire department equipment and $1 million for affected businesses and residents.
“Norfolk Southern’s train derailment has hurt communities in Western Pennsylvania, and to make matters worse, the company’s disregard for crisis management best practices injected unnecessary risk into the situation and created confusion for residents and first responders,” Shapiro said in a statement.