FRA, NTSB Launch Norfolk Safety Investigation
The Federal Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board announced plans last week to conduct investigations into the safety practices of Norfolk Southern Railway following multiple rail incidents.
On March 7, the NTSB announced a special investigation of Norfolk Southern Railway’s organization and safety culture. The Board explains that, since December 2021, it has launched investigation teams to five significant accidents involving Norfolk Southern.
“Given the number and significance of recent Norfolk Southern accidents, the NTSB also urges the company to take immediate action today to review and assess its safety practices, with the input of employees and others, and implement necessary changes to improve safety,” wrote the board.
In addition to the recent Ohio derailments, the NTSB reports that there were other rail incidents in Reed, Pennsylvania; Bessemer, Alabama; Sandusky, Ohio; and Cleveland. A Norfolk Southern employee was killed in the most recent accident in Cleveland as a result of a truck and train collision.
According to the release from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the FRA’s 60-day supplemental safety assessment is in addition to several actions taken by the department over the past several weeks to improve freight rail safety and accountability to protect workers and communities.
“After a series of derailments and the death of one of its workers, we are initiating this further supplemental safety review of Norfolk Southern, while also calling on Norfolk Southern to act urgently to improve its focus on safety so the company can begin earning back the trust of the public and its employees,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “This comes as USDOT continues its own urgent actions to further improve freight rail safety and accountability.”
NTSB and FRA to scrutinize Norfolk Southern’s ‘safety culture’ - FreightWaves https://t.co/tWozAGi5u3— Bonnie Rawson (@BonnieRawson4) March 9, 2023
As part of the assessment, the FRA’s safety team will review the findings and recommendations of the 2022 Norfolk Southern system audit. It will also revisit FRA’s recommendations and the scope of the railroad’s responses.
The FRA will reportedly assess the following operation elements:
Following the assessment, the FRA will issue a public report on its findings. The administration notes that information collected through the supplemental safety assessment will exceed the scope of existing FRA audits, providing a more expansive look at Norfolk Southern’s overall safety culture and operations.
Additionally, the information gathered will be used to target specific areas for FRA’s oversight and enforcement efforts and help identify risks beyond the reach of current federal regulations. The FRA will then use the collected data to push the Norfolk Southern to develop measures to mitigate risks while identifying appropriate enforcement actions.
“Given recent events, Norfolk Southern and all major freight railroads must be taking immediate steps to prioritize safety training and culture along with operational actions that match the severity of recent incidents,” writes the DOT.
“Norfolk Southern must prioritize the safety and well-being of its workers as well as the millions of individuals living near routes on which they operate.”
Norfolk Train Derailments
On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern train derailment occurred in East Palestine, Ohio, about 20 miles south of Youngstown and near the Pennsylvania border. About 50 of the 150 train cars had derailed, and of the 20 cars carrying hazardous materials, about 10 were affected.
While no injuries were immediately reported, the derailment resulted in a large fire, prompting evacuations of nearby residents within a mile radius. A shelter-in-place order was also issued for the entire remainder of the town.
While a variety of chemicals were being carried by the train, the chemical of “most concern” in the tankers was vinyl chloride, a carcinogenic gas that’s highly flammable and often used to produce polyvinyl chloride for pipes, wire coatings or plastic kitchenware.
Residents were again urged to evacuate that Sunday due to the risk of explosion. In a statement, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine noted that a “drastic temperature change” took place inside a rail car, with the potential for “catastrophic tanker failure.”
That Monday, the Ohio National Guard, the U.S. Department of Defense, DeWine and Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro ordered an immediate evacuation in a one-mile by two-mile surrounding area, citing that the vinyl chloride contents of five rail cars were unstable and could potentially explode.
On Feb. 6, crews conducted a “controlled release” of the toxic chemicals from five of the tanker cars that were in danger of exploding.
Since then, the EPA has ordered Norfolk Southern to conduct all necessary actions associated with the cleanup from the train derailment. This order also marks the transition from the “emergency phase” to the longer-term remediation phase.
The NTSB also issued its preliminary findings on Feb. 23, with the report indicating that one of the train’s cars carrying plastic pellets was heated by a hot axle that sparked the initial fire. As the temperature of the bearing got hotter, the train passed by two wayside defect detectors that did not trigger an audible alarm message because the heat threshold was not met at that point. A third detector picked up the heat, but it was already “too late.”
A health clinic was opened by the state for residents who have concerns their health was affected by the derailment, as testing for chemicals in the air and water continue. According to reports, the community has reported a “growing number of ailments,” including rashes, nausea and trouble breathing.
Less than a month after the initial incident, a second Norfolk Southern train derailed Saturday (March 4) evening near Springfield, Ohio. Officials reported that no hazardous materials were involved in the 28-car derailment, noting that the accident posed no risk to the public.
The 212-car train had four tankers that carried nonhazardous materials. Two had residual amounts of diesel exhaust fluid, and the others had residual amounts of polyacrylamide water solution, along with one hopper carrying nontoxic plastic pellets that were partially spilled.