Train engineer says he saw too many ‘safety-shortcuts’ at Norfolk Southern

PITTSBURGH — For years, Scott Wilcox drove a train for Norfolk Southern, traveling between the Conway Pennsylvania rail yard and Toledo, Ohio.

“More times than I care to count,” says Wilcox.

It’s the same route that a Norfolk Southern freight train took last month until it suddenly derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, releasing hazardous chemicals and causing concern for those who lived there.

Wilson says he wasn’t surprised.

“This has been something that’s going to happen for a long time” says the licensed locomotive engineer. “And now it happened.”

Now retired, Wilcox says he comes from six generations of rail road workers and spent nearly 20 years in the business, much of it with Norfolk Southern.

But along the way, Wilcox says things started to change and it worried him.  He says, first, Norfolk Southern started increasing the length of the trains by adding car after car after car.

“They’ve gone from a mile and a quarter to 2 to 3 miles long” Wilcox says. The problem? It can make the train difficult to handle, especially on curves and hills.

At the same time, he says he saw a decrease of safety inspectors who are supposed to inspect the brakes and wheels of every car before it leaves.

The result?

“They used to have between five and 8 minutes per car” to the do the inspection, he says. “Now it’s down to between 30 seconds and a minute per car. There’s some of these cars that you’d have a hard time walking the length of them in 30 seconds.”

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Just as alarming, says Wilcox, a train is supposed to be fully inspected every 1000 miles of travel. But he says instead, “mostly what they do is they drive alongside it in the pickup truck.”

Channel 11: “That’s the inspection?”

Wilcox: “Yeah. They drive the driver along one side of the train.”

Channel 11: “You’ve seen that happen?”

Wilcox: “Yeah. Put a spotlight on the side of the train at night and drive alongside it.”

In short, says Wilcox, what happened in East Palestine was a logical, almost inevitable outcome.

Channel 11: “You suspect this was a failure of the inspection process?”

Wilcox: “Pretty much, yeah. There’s not much else that would do that.”

Channel 11 contacted Norfolk Southern for comment about Wilcox’s claims, but we never heard back.

During a recent congressional hearing, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw was grilled about an internal company memo

allowing inspectors only 30 seconds to inspect a rail car.

“I’m not familiar with a minimum or maximum for rail car inspection duration,” said Shaw.

Senator Maria Cantwell, (D) Washington, snapped back:

“We’re not going to keep letting people put money in the bank and think that you can short change safety.”

Under continued intense questioning, Shaw committed his company to providing additional training for employees, advanced warning notifications, and phasing out the use of older, weaker tanker cars that are often used to haul hazardous chemicals.

Shaw said, “We strive to make our safety culture the best in the industry.”

Wilcox also had positive comments about his former employer.

He says that in his experience Norfolk Southern always did an excellent job of remediating any accident site. He says he’s confident that the company will make things right for the folks of East Palestine and any other communities impacted by the derailment.

But we had one more question for the locomotive engineer:

Channel 11: “Are we going to see more of these?”

Wilcox: “If the situation doesn’t change, if they keep doing things the way they’ve done in the past, yeah. You’re going to see more of these.”

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