Norfolk Southern launches safety plan after Ohio derailment

(NewsNation) — In the aftermath of a train derailment in Ohio that released toxic chemicals into the environment, rail company Norfolk Southern has launched a six-point safety plan.

The company has seen a sharp rise in incidents in recent years, and over the weekend a second Norfolk Southern train derailed in Ohio. In the most recent derailment, no cars were carrying hazardous substances but the company has been under pressure from lawmakers, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, to take action without waiting on government regulators.

Jared Cassity, legislative director for the SMART Transportation Division, a union representing transit workers, said the plan does not go far enough.

“Norfolk Southern has been less than stellar, as far as a railroad goes, when it comes to safety over the last few years,” Cassity told NewsNation.

The majority of points are efforts to detect overheating bearings quickly. The company has pledged to add additional hot bearing detectors to its network, pilot newer, more advanced hot bearing detectors and work with the industry to evaluate how hot bearing detectors are currently used and the ways companies respond to alerts.

The company has also said it will install acoustic bearing detectors to its network, which it claims can detect certain problems before they would be apparent on a visible inspection.

A preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report found an overheated wheel bearing caused the 150-car train to derail near East Palestine, Ohio. Train companies rely on a network of hot bearing detectors to catch these incidents before a derailment occurs.

However, the distance between detectors can vary widely, from 10 to 40 miles. The NTSB found the derailed train passed by two detectors that registered the bearing was hotter than average, but not hot enough to trigger an alert and inspection.

Norfolk Southern also has a policy that allows controllers to ignore warnings from detectors instead of requiring they immediately stop the train for inspection, according to reporting from ProPublica.

Cassity said the reason Norfolk Southern and other rail companies want to delay some changes until after the NTSB’s full report is because they know the recommendations aren’t binding.

“Their game plan here is to let time run its course, let people forget over a period of time, that’s what’s actually happening,” he said.

As part of the safety plan, Norfolk Southern has also said it will accelerate a digital inspection program which uses machine vision and algorithms to detect problems. The company said the program is able to more accurately detect issues than human inspectors.

A train union representative spoke out against the digital inspection program, claiming Norfolk Southern offered them paid sick time in exchange for dropping their objection to increasing digital inspections while also reducing the number of human inspectors.

The company has also pledged to “support a strong safety culture” by joining the Federal Railroad Administration’s Confidential Close Call Reporting System, which is designed to make it easier for rail workers to report unsafe conditions.

Cassity said rail workers are afraid to speak up because they fear retaliation, despite whistleblower protections.

“They know if they speak up, at the very least they’re going to be harassed or intimidated by management. And at the very most, they’re going to lose their job,” Cassity said.

Experts say railroad workers have been speaking out about safety risks for years, but efforts to increase regulations on rail companies have been stalled by industry pressure.

In response to the crash in East Palestine, Buttigieg has called on Congress to increase regulations for the industry.

Trending on NewsNation