Norfolk Southern Trains Derail in PA

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 6, 2024


Pennsylvania officials recently announced that three trains were reportedly involved in a collision and derailment in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on Saturday (March 2) morning along the Lehigh River.

According to reports, there were no injuries or evacuations, though some railroad cars were left scattered along the riverbank and one car partially submerged, causing diesel and polypropylene plastic pellets to spill into the river.

Derailment Details

A report from AP News stated that the derailment was reported at around 7:15 a.m. in Lower Saucon Township along the river. 

The township’s police chief, Thomas Barndt, explained that emergency responders at the site found “multiple trains derailed” but no reported injuries. Additionally, no hazardous materials were reportedly involved, and no evacuations were ordered to nearby residents.

The National Transportation Safety Board said early data from the wreckage points to an eastbound Norfolk Southern train striking another Norfolk Southern train that had stopped on the same track.

Wreckage from the striking train reportedly spilled onto a nearby track and was then hit by a westbound Norfolk Southern train, the NTSB said in an email to The Associated Press.

Gary Weiland, who lives across the river, explained that he first heard what sounded like a crash, then a period of quiet followed by the sound of another crash.

“As the second one was happening, I went upstairs and looked out the window and saw a splash. I said to my wife, ‘I think a train derailed,’” Weiland said.

The Nancy Run Fire Company (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania) also reportedly posted pictures showing several railroad cars scattered along the riverbank and one partially in the water.

A report from ABC News added that containment booms were deployed after some diesel fuel spilled into the river from the crash.

Norfolk Southern explained that this was only a small diesel fuel leak that is “common when locomotives are involved.” Officials with Norfolk Southern reportedly stated that it would be vacuumed out, adding that plastic pellets that spilled from one car mostly fell to the ground.

Officials also stated that ropes were used to assist some personnel who were stranded on the river after the crash to reach the roadway after the derailment.

A New York Times report stated that the Lehigh River is a provider of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people, and is a tributary of the Delaware River, contributing to a water supply for 15 million people.

Additionally, the NTSB reportedly sent a team with “experts in train operations, signals and train control, mechanical systems, and human performance,” to look at the wreckage of derailed cars and other train equipment.

Investigators also reportedly reviewed data from the locomotive event recorders and downloaded data from the wayside signals, the safety board said.

Downloads from the inward- and outward-facing image recorders on all three trains are expected to be sent back to the organization’s Washington headquarters for further analysis.

The Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees the safety reporting program, reportedly also sent safety personnel on Saturday to help authorities in the Lehigh Valley.

"We take this incident seriously and work hard to avoid all accidents," Norfolk Southern said in a statement, adding that it had plans to work closely with federal authorities “to understand how it happened and prevent others like it.”

According to regulatory reports, derailments rose at the top five freight railroad companies in 2023.

Previous Norfolk Southern Incidents

In February of last year, a 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.

Norfolk Southern reported the incident at 10:53 p.m. to the National Response Center. According to NTSB Member Michael Graham, the crew received a mechanical failure warning from a wayside defect detector before the derailment.

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.

Residents were warned that anyone in a “red” affected area would faced “grave danger of death,” and those in yellow impacted areas were at high risk of severe injury, including skin burns and serious lung damage. Mayor Trent Conaway reported that everyone cleared out when officials went door-to-door.

Later that some month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered Norfolk Southern to conduct all actions in the environmental cleanup phase associated with the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment. Cleanup efforts began as some residents reported health concerns regarding the air and water in the community.

the EPA announced it had ordered Norfolk Southern to conduct all necessary actions associated with the cleanup from the train derailment. This order also marked the transition from the “emergency phase” to the longer-term remediation phase.

As part of the legally binding order, Norfolk Southern would be required to:

  • Identify and clean up contaminated soil and water resources;
  • Reimburse EPA for cleaning services to be offered to residents and businesses to provide an additional layer of reassurance, which will be conducted by EPA staff and contractors;
  • Attend and participate in public meetings at EPA’s request and post information online; and
  • Pay for EPA’s costs for work performed under this order.

Additionally, the EPA approved a workplan outlining all steps necessary to clean up the environmental damage caused by the derailment. If the company failed to complete any actions as ordered by EPA, the Agency would immediately step in, conduct the necessary work, and then seek to compel Norfolk Southern to pay triple the cost.

Then, in March of the same year, a second Norfolk Southern train derailed 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.

Initially, following the crash, a precautionary shelter-in-place order was issued for residents within 1,000 feet of the site, but that order was lifted. Power was also knocked out to some residents as the crash took down power lines. Anne Vogel, Director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said no chemicals or hazardous materials were released into the air, soil or water.

The 212-car train reportedly 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.

The rest of the train included a couple of liquid propane and ethanol tankers and cars with mixed freight, steel and finished automobiles, which did not overturn, though many of the cars that derailed were empty box cars.

The two crew members on board were reportedly uninjured. The FRA and the NTSB were investigating the incident.

According to reports, an internal Norfolk Southern email indicated that Norfolk Southern was planning to reduce train length in an effort to prevent future accidents.

According to the investigative report for that incident, the tonnage profile showed heavy cars at the head of the train, in the middle and in the rear, with empty cars scattered throughout.

Finally, later that same month, the FRA and NTSB announced plans to conduct investigations into the safety practices of Norfolk Southern Railway following the rail incidents.

The NTSB announced a special investigation of Norfolk Southern Railway’s organization and safety culture. The Board explained that, since December 2021, it had launched investigation teams to five significant accidents involving Norfolk Southern.

In addition to the Ohio derailments, the NTSB reported 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.

As part of the assessment, the FRA’s safety team was to review the findings and recommendations of the 2022 Norfolk Southern system audit. It would also revisit FRA’s recommendations and the scope of the railroad’s responses.

The FRA planned to assess operation elements, including:

  • Track, signal and rolling stock maintenance, inspection and repair practices;
  • Protection for employees working on rail infrastructure, locomotives and rail cars;
  • Communication between transportation departments and mechanical and engineering staff;
  • Operation control center procedures and dispatcher training;
  • Compliance with federal Hours of Service regulations; and
  • Evaluating results of operational testing of employees’ execution and comprehension of all applicable operating rules and federal regulations.

Following the assessment, the FRA planned to issue a public report on its findings. The administration noted that information collected through the supplemental safety assessment would exceed the scope of existing FRA audits, providing a more expansive look at Norfolk Southern’s overall safety culture and operations.

   

Tagged categories: Accidents; Cleanup; Environmental Control; Environmental Controls; Environmental Protection; Federal Railroad Administration; Health & Safety; Health and safety; NA; North America; NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board); Program/Project Management; Rail; Railcars; Safety

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