The Washington Post

Freight railroads agree on safety measures after toxic derailment in Ohio


Major freight railroads have agreed among themselves to adopt new safety measures, pledging to expand a network of sensors designed to catch overheatin­g bearings and setting a common standard for when those sensors warn train crews to stop and look for danger.

The Associatio­n of American Railroads announced the steps Wednesday, saying the measures demonstrat­ed the industry’s commitment to acting swiftly as the National Transporta­tion Safety Board continues to probe last month’s derailment and chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio.

“Healthy railroads are essential to the U.S. economy, and consistent­ly and reliably safe operations are essential to healthy railroads,” said Ian Jefferies, the associatio­n’s chief executive. “Our long history of voluntaril­y employing safety measures that go above and beyond federal requiremen­ts proves our belief in that principle.”

The measures were announced on the eve of the first congressio­nal hearing on the East Palestine derailment and come as lawmakers and Transporta­tion Secretary Pete Buttigieg push the industry to improve its safety record. Norfolk Southern, the operator of the derailed train, is under particular scrutiny, with the NTSB and Federal Railroad Administra­tion announcing reviews of the railroad’s practices Tuesday after one of its employees was killed in Cleveland and a train derailed Saturday in Springfiel­d, Ohio.

The steps the industry announced Wednesday — which include aid for emergency responders to better manage derailment­s — tackle safety issues raised by the FRA and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administra­tion in advisories last week.

Greg Regan, president of the Transporta­tion Trades Department, a labor organizati­on, said the changes would not stave off new regulation­s or legislatio­n.

“It should not be left to the industry to come up with piecemeal guidelines,” Regan said. “Rather, federal regulation­s should create a uniform approach to regulating these technologi­es and all other critical safety concerns across the freight rail industry.”

The Associatio­n of American Railroads said freight lines would aim to install 1,000 new hotbox detectors on their networks, seeking to have the devices spaced, on average, 15 miles apart. That addition to the existing 6,000 detectors across the United States and Canada is expected to cost railroads at least $150 million, said Mike Rush, the associatio­n’s senior vice president for safety and operations.

Norfolk Southern said Monday it would add 200 detectors. The devices measure the temperatur­e of bearings on passing trains, sending a warning to crews if any are dangerousl­y hot — a sign of an impending failure that can lead to a derailment.

The NTSB has said thresholds at which those warnings are issued vary among railroads. The associatio­n said the industry has agreed to a single standard, committing to stopping trains and inspecting bearings that read 170 degrees higher than the surroundin­g air.

Norfolk Southern already used that standard, but on the route into East Palestine there are two detectors 10 miles apart, followed by a 20-mile gap. The first two recorded elevated temperatur­es, but not above the 170-degree threshold. By the time the train passed the third, the temperatur­e had spiked to 253 degrees above the ambient temperatur­e, triggering a warning that came too late.

The NTSB has said the derailment might have been avoided if detectors had been closer.

Railroads analyze data from multiple detectors to identify trends — such as rising temperatur­es — to catch problems before they become critical. The railroad associatio­n said major freight railroads are reviewing how they conduct those analyses, aiming to issue recommenda­tions by the end of the month.

The derailment has brought new attention to the workings of the detectors, but federal data indicates hot bearings caused only 11 of about 1,000 derailment­s last year. Rush said railroads were responding to public concern.

“From an industry perspectiv­e we had a very good and sound approach,” he said. “It would be explaining the obvious to say the Class 1 railroads are very aware of the public concern around this issue and are taking action.”

Detectors have been credited with reducing derailment­s, but they are not perfect. The FRA has highlighte­d an Oct. 8 incident involving a Norfolk Southern train in Sandusky, Ohio, in which a dispatcher alerted a train crew to a potential problem bearing. The train was stopped and an electricia­n investigat­ed, finding that the bearing had cooled. The crew was then told to continue, but after seven miles the bearing failed and the train derailed.

Railroads also announced plans to provide training for 20,000 first responders this year across the country to better prepare them to handle such incidents. The industry also will expand efforts to sign up emergency responders for a data-sharing app that provides informatio­n on hazardous materials on trains, aiming to double the 48,000 people with access by the end of the year.

On Thursday, Norfolk Southern chief executive Alan Shaw is scheduled to testify on the East Palestine derailment before the Senate Environmen­t and Public Works Committee. Previewing the hearing on Wednesday, Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-del.), the committee’s chairman, noted an opportunit­y to learn from the derailment.

“The key is for us to think and find out what went wrong, find out how it could be avoided in the future, what can we do better and make sure that we do that — and follow up on that, and that we don’t just get distracted by another issue next week or the next month,” Carper said.

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