NS implements NTSB safety recommendations after East Palestine

The NTSB confirmed that the February 2023 East Palestine, Ohio, derailment was caused by a wheel bearing that video showed was on fire for more than 20 miles (32.19 kilometres) beforehand but wasn’t caught in time by inaccurate trackside detectors. Norfolk Southern (NS) says it has taken steps to implement some of the safety recommendations.

The board also approved more than two dozen recommendations to prevent similar disasters, including establishing federal rules for those detectors and the way railways respond to them along with reviewing how officials decide whether to ever conduct a vent and burn again.

Norfolk Southern Safety Enhancements

Among the NTSB recommendations specific to Norfolk Southern (NS), the company says it has taken action to enable the immediate availability of train consist information to first responders and encourage contractors to share information to make emergency response decisions.

In addition, NS has addressed the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) recommendations from its 2023 Safety Culture Assessment. As a result of these actions and others, Norfolk Southern’s mainline accident rate declined 38% last year to industry leading levels.

NS says it will move quickly to compare the NTSB’s recommendations to their current protocols.

“We resolved not to wait for the NTSB’s final report before taking decisive action,” said John Fleps, Chief Safety Officer at Norfolk Southern.

“We will continue to build on our strong safety culture through partnership and innovation to be the gold standard of safety for the rail industry.”

Norfolk Southern says it has:

  • Become the first railroad to partner with RapidSOS, a digital platform that connects devices over 16,000 emergency response agencies to immediately provide first responders with real-time access to train consists, train locations, and emergency response protocols.
  • Continued to advocate for phasing out inferior customer-owned DOT-111 tank cars and imposing a more expedited phaseout timetable than federal regulations have provided given our role as a common carrier under which we are obligated to accept DOT-111 tank cars.
  • Launched and implemented Six-Point Safety Plan including:
    • Installing 187 additional hot bearing detectors, reducing core network average distance between detectors to approximately 12 miles;
    • Quadrupling acoustic bearing detectors;
    • Developing and deploying Digital Train Inspection Portals, using ultra-high-resolution cameras and machine vision; and
    • Investing in next-generation inspection technology.
  • Continued to invest significant resources in training first responders on hazmat response.
    • Broke ground on a new regional first responder training centre in East Palestine, Ohio and will invest USD 25 million in the new centre.
    • Continued to provide classroom and online resources, tabletop drills, and full-scale exercises to help responders prepare for incidents through the OAR program.
    • Participated in industry efforts to help communities develop emergency response plans.
  • In collaboration with labour unions, become the first Class I railroad to join the FRA’s Confidential Close Call Reporting System.
  • Brought in world-class safety experts, AtkinsRéalis (ANS) to conduct an independent review and implement a 2-3 year roadmap of additional safety initiatives.

Vent and burn in East Palestine was unnecessary

More than three dozen freight cars derailed Feb. 3, 2023, on the outskirts of East Palestine near the Pennsylvania border, including 11 carrying hazardous materials. Some residents were evacuated that night, but days later more had to leave their homes amid fears of an imminent explosion.

Despite potential health effects, officials intentionally released and burned toxic vinyl chloride three days after the crash, sending flames and smoke into the air.

In its final report on the February 2023 Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, US, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) confirmed that the incident, which spilled dangerous chemicals including vinyl chloride, was caused by a defective wheel bearing that overheated. The report also concludes that the decision by authorities to vent the vinyl chloride into a trench and burn it was ill-informed. The investigators determined that this decision was based on incomplete and misleading information provided by Norfolk Southern officials and contractors – something the company refutes. ‘The vent and burn procedure was not necessary to prevent a polymerisation induced explosion,’ the report concludes.

Chemicals released during the East Palestine train wreck fires in February 2023 in Ohio were carried across 16 US states, new research of federal precipitation and pollution data shows.

In May, Norfolk Southern agreed to pay a USD 15 million civil penalty to cover the US Environmental Protection Agency’s expenses related to the derailment, and several million in cleanup and monitoring costs. Earlier this year, the company also reached a USD 600 million settlement to resolve a class-action lawsuit brought by local residents over health problems in the incident’s aftermath.

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