Norfolk Southern announces safety upgrades amid derailments

Norfolk Southern announced plans on Monday to improve the use of detectors placed along railroad tracks to spot overheating bearings and other problems in response to a fiery derailment on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border a month ago.

The announcement came the same day Pennsylvania’s governor announced that the company had agreed to pay several million dollars to cover the cost of the response and recovery in that state.

The company said it would evaluate the distance between “hot bearing” detectors — currently 13.9 miles (22 kilometers) on average on its core network — and promised to look at every location where the distance is more than 15 miles (24 kilometers), deploying more detectors if practical.

Norfolk Southern “anticipates adding approximately 200 hot bearing detectors to its network, with the first installed on the western approach to East Palestine,” said the company announcement, which comes amid proposals from President Joe Biden’s administration and Congress aimed at improving safety following last month’s derailment.

The National Transportation Safety Board has said the crew operating the train that derailed Feb. 3 outside East Palestine, Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border got a warning from such a detector but couldn’t stop the train before more than three dozen cars came off the tracks and caught fire.

Half of the town of about 5,000 people had to evacuate for days when responders intentionally burned toxic chemicals in some of the derailed cars to prevent an uncontrolled explosion, leaving residents with lingering health concerns. Government officials say tests haven’t found dangerous levels of chemicals in the air or water in the area.

A week ago, a safety advisory from the Federal Railroad Administration urged railroads to reexamine the use of such detectors, making sure that they get inspected often enough by trained employees and that there are safe standards for determining when to stop a train or park a railcar when a warning is triggered. The railroad administration said overheating bearings likely caused at least four other derailments since 2021 and called for ways to analyze temperature trends from the sensors to help identify potential problems sooner.

Norfolk Southern also said it would work with manufacturers to speed up tests and deployment of new “multi-scan” detectors able to scan a greater cross-section of a railcar’s bearings and wheels. It also vowed to work with other railroads to review standards and practices, reevaluating the temperature triggering an alarm and the response to such alarms as well as analyzing data for patterns that could warn of safety issues.

Also announced in Norfolk Southern’s six-point safety plan Monday was installation of more acoustic bearing detectors, which analyze the acoustic signature of vibration inside the axle to identify potential problems. Norfolk Southern said it has five such detectors in service and will add 13 more on high-traffic routes.

The company also said it is working with Georgia Tech Research Institute to develop more advanced safety inspection technology and will join the railroad administration’s “confidential close call reporting system,” also citing its own program that “encourages railroaders to speak up if they see something that is unsafe.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has proposed a number of safety improvements, including reviving a rule requiring upgraded, electronically controlled brakes on certain trains filled with flammable liquids that are designated “high-hazardous flammable trains,” and possibly expanding which trains are covered by that designation. The industry has been pushing to delay any major changes until after the transportation safety board completes its investigation a year or more from now.

Ohio’s two U.S. senators last week introduced legislation that would require railroads to create disaster plans and tell emergency response commissions what hazardous materials are going through their states. Other provisions would maintain a two-person crew size and require regulators to set limits on train size and weight.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, who joined the legislation, said Monday that preventing future derailments would require measures “far beyond the steps Norfolk Southern outlined today” and called on the company and other rail firms to “get on board” the Senate proposal.

Professor Allan Zarembski, who leads the University of Delaware’s rail engineering and safety program, earlier said that overheating bearings cause only a handful of the more than 1,000 derailments each year, and he doubted the value of any “knee-jerk reaction” amid great political pressure. On Monday, he called Norfolk Southern’s plan on hot bearings “a good incremental step forward” to get rid of a problem he reiterated was “very infrequent.”

On Saturday afternoon, 28 cars of a Norfolk Southern cargo train derailed in Ohio between Dayton and Columbus and prompted a temporary shelter-in-place order, but officials said the derailment did not involve any hazardous materials, although the 212-car train also had cars containing liquid propane and ethanol that didn’t derail.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Josh Shapiro said Monday that Norfolk Southern has pledged several million dollars to cover the cost of the response and recovery in Pennsylvania after last month’s derailment. The company previously announced more than $1 million for Ohio to replace fire equipment used in the response to the fiery wreck, plus $1 million for East Palestine and more than $1.2 million for evacuation costs for nearly 900 families and businesses.

The company has said it is “committed to coordinating the cleanup project and paying for its associated costs,” and wants to ensure that East Palestine’s residents and natural environment recover.

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