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Norfolk Southern Train Derailment in East Palestine: NTSB Hearings Reveal Key Insights

Alexander Mitchell
Alexander Mitchell
Pilot on the B-767, international and overwater operations. Accomplished SIGINT/LLVI operator with five years of diverse experience in strategic and tactical operations. Adept in handling confidential information and situations with discretion. Respected leader, providing purpose, motivation, and direction focused on achieving and exceeding company goals.

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Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, are learning more about last year’s fiery derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train as another hearing commences. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is discussing the ongoing investigation and issuing recommendations to prevent future disasters.

NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy highlighted the significant impact of the derailment at the start of Tuesday’s hearing. “The absence of fatality or injury doesn’t mean the presence of safety,” she emphasized. Michael Graham, an NTSB board member, assured that the NTSB’s work would continue beyond making safety recommendations, stating, “We will pursue and advocate for these recommendations until each one is implemented.”

Jennifer Homendy, Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, speaks during a board meeting on June 25, 2024, about the February 3, 2023, Norfolk Southern freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Photo: Sue Ogrocki, AP

Details of the Derailment

On February 3, 2023, at approximately 8:54 p.m. local time, Norfolk Southern Railway (NS) freight train 32N derailed 38 railcars on the NS Fort Wayne Line in East Palestine, Ohio. The derailment involved 11 tank cars carrying hazardous materials, which ignited and fueled fires that damaged 12 additional railcars. First responders implemented a 1-mile evacuation zone, affecting up to 2,000 residents. Despite the significant damage, there were no reported fatalities or injuries.

The direction of travel of the Norfolk Southern freight train. Source: NTSB

Train 32N, consisting of two head-end locomotives, 149 railcars, and one distributed power locomotive, included 20 placarded hazardous materials tank cars transporting combustible and flammable liquids, some containing vinyl chloride. The train was traveling at about 47 mph, below the maximum authorized speed of 50 mph. The positive train control system was enabled and operating at the time of the derailment.

A wayside defect detector on the east side of Palestine, Ohio, transmitted a critical audible alarm message to inspect a hot axle. During the deceleration to stop the train, an automatic emergency brake application was initiated, bringing Train 32N to a halt. Initial NTSB findings pointed to an overheated bearing not detected in time by trackside sensors as the likely cause of the derailment.

Employee Concerns

Employees familiar with the incident revealed that Train 32N had broken down at least once before the derailment, originating from Madison, Illinois, on February 1. Concerns were raised about the train’s excessive length and weight—151 cars, 9,300 feet long, and 18,000 tons—which they believe contributed to both the initial breakdown and the derailment.

“We shouldn’t be running trains that are 150 car lengths long,” one employee stated, emphasizing the need for limitations on train size. The train’s weight distribution was reportedly uniform, with a mid-train locomotive managing dynamic forces to reduce mechanical issues. However, employees described a system stretched to its limits, with exhausted workers, drastically cut inspection times, and no regulations on train size.

Impact of Precision Schedule Railroading (PSR)

The incident has brought attention to Precision Schedule Railroading (PSR), a strategy adopted by Norfolk Southern in 2019 to increase efficiency and reduce costs. A Government Accountability Office report indicated that PSR led to longer trains and a 28% staff decrease among the nation’s seven largest freight railroads.

Jared Cassity, the national legislative director for one of the unions representing Norfolk Southern workers, pointed out that PSR resulted in fewer and shorter inspections of train cars. “There’s a good chance the car that derailed had not been properly inspected for some time,” Cassity said, warning that without changes, similar incidents are likely to recur.

NTSB Recommendations and Future Changes

The NTSB recommended that the Federal Railroad Administration establish rules for responding to bearing failure alarms. Although NTSB recommendations are not binding, congressional action may follow due to increased attention to rail safety. Last year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed reforms, including two-person crews and inspection standards, but the bill stalled in the Senate. Federal regulators have urged railroads to adopt safety changes, such as using an anonymous hotline for reporting concerns.

Company and Industry Responses

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw pledged over $100 million in aid to East Palestine residents and hired a nuclear industry consultant for safety recommendations. Critics, however, argue that the company has been content with minimal safety measures. Following the derailment, major freight railroads committed to enhancing safety by adding trackside sensors and improving data analysis. The Association of American Railroads will review the NTSB report for further safety improvements.

The Controversial Vent-and-Burn Operation

Homendy informed Congress that the controversial vent-and-burn operation was unnecessary, as OxyVinyls experts testified that no dangerous chemical reaction was occurring. Nonetheless, Ohio’s governor and first responders believed an explosion was imminent based on the available information.

Picture of the controlled burn following derailment. Photo from @MrCrackin_ via X

Norfolk Southern recently announced it would lead an industrywide review of vent-and-burn decision-making as part of a federal settlement. A new federal rule now requires railroads to inform first responders about train contents immediately after a derailment, with the industry stating that over two million first responders can access this information via the AskRail app.

Toward a Safer Future

The NTSB hearings underscored the critical need for improved rail safety measures and regulatory reforms. The Norfolk Southern derailment has highlighted the dangers posed by overly long and heavy trains, insufficient inspection protocols, and the implications of Precision Schedule Railroading. As the investigation continues, the focus will remain on implementing the NTSB’s recommendations to prevent such incidents in the future and ensure the safety and well-being of communities like East Palestine.

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