Aerial view of the train derailment wreckage in East Palestine, Ohio, Feb. 5, 2023. (NTSB).
Last October in Sandusky, Ohio, a Norfolk Southern train derailed 21 cars and spilled 10,000 gallons of paraffin wax.
In 2020, a Norfolk Southern conductor tried to pull out of a Rossville, Tennessee train yard while one car was still connected to an unloading tower. The accident released about 500 gallons of maelic anhydride — an irritant for the eyes and respiratory tract that’s useful in making resins.
And in 2018, Norfolk Southern had an accident in Loudonville, Ohio. Sixteen cars came off the tracks. One car spilled more than 30,000 gallons of liquified petroleum gas. The other, according to the accident report, “released 200 pounds of environmentally hazardous substances, solid.”
That last accident happened in February — five years to the day, in fact, before the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine.
Norfolk’s safety reputation
Derailments litter the past five years of Norfolk Southern’s accident reports. To be fair, most of those incidents are relatively benign: Nothing spills, nobody gets hurt.
Still the frequency of these incidents is hard to miss. Axios noted that in a recent earnings call executives acknowledged accidents are climbing. The Dispatch recently reported that Norfolk Southern is near the top of major rail companies when it comes to accidents per million miles.
According to a Federal Railroad Administration 10-year safety summary, Norfolk Southern saw 163.6 derailments and 2.9 hazardous material releases per year on average.
Speaking on background, one former conductor said Norfolk Southern doesn’t have great reputation when it comes to safety. A consultant with significant experience in the industry said among the big four railroads, Norfolk Southern isn’t as bad as Union Pacific, but it’s still pushing the bounds of safe operation.
On the other hand, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen vice president Vince Verna said the company isn’t an outlier among those major, or Class 1, railroads.
“NS doesn’t really stand out as better or worse than the other Class 1 railroads in America,” he explained. “I’m sure if you looked at any one metric, they may have a better or worse metric depending on what you might be looking at, but all the Class 1 railroads have their issues and their successes.”
Robert Lauby, the former chief safety officer with the Federal Railroad Administration argued Norfolk’s track record is actually pretty good.
“Norfolk Southern has historically been one of the safer railroads,” Lauby said. “They are a conservative railroad, I would say, in that they like to do things the way they’ve always done it, but they try to do it as good as possible.”
“Even safe companies have tragic accidents like this,” he added.
Pointing fingers over regulations
The disaster in East Palestine has put significant attention on the regulatory framework that governs rail safety. The often esoteric provisions have become political ammunition for those criticizing the Biden administration’s response or the Trump administration’s rollbacks.
There’s no doubt former President Donald Trump abandoned or rescinded rules related to rail safety. He regularly bragged about cutting red tape on Twitter. But experts caution against relying on a counterfactual argument.
Gov. Mike DeWine said it was “absurd” the train didn’t have a high hazard designation. That would’ve made no difference, the consultant explained. The Trump administration scrapped rules mandating at least two crew members per train. There were three crew members on the Norfolk Southern train that derailed in East Palestine.
When it comes to electronic braking, however, rail experts offer a more nuanced response.
As NTSB chairwoman Jennifer Homendy noted in a Twitter thread, the electronic braking rules that Trump rolled back wouldn’t have applied to the train in East Palestine. Still, had such a system been in place, it could’ve made a difference.
Lauby compared trains to “a giant slinky”. With traditional pneumatic braking systems, cars at the front of the line stop before cars at the back. Electronically controlled pneumatic, or ECP brakes, apply down the line at the same time. Lauby doubts that ECP brakes would have prevented the East Palestine derailment, but he explained they do tend to reduce the size of accidents.
“They minimize the number of cars involved in the derailment and the speed at which they pile up,” he said. “It takes a lot of the energy out of a derailment when it does occur.”
More important, Lauby and the consultant explain, is what the electronic system can offer beyond braking. They describe it as a kind of backbone that can transmit information up and down the train in real time.
“So, if I’m going down the railroad as a locomotive engineer and I see an alert on the ECP display — car 23, hot bearing, I’m just going to bring my train to a stop,” the consultant explained.
Given the preliminary NTSB report citing an overheated bearing as the apparent cause of derailment, the consultant believes that kind of system could have prevented the accident in East Palestine.
“If the train in East Palestine had been equipped with ECP brakes and that suite of sensors on that car, there would not have been an likelihood of derailment,” the consultant said. “It’s not a matter of blaming anybody. It’s a matter of what potential do we have here moving forward to operate a safer and more efficient railroad.”
What should happen?
The NTSB’s initial findings describe how a bearing in the 23rd car went from 38°F to 103°F to 253°F above ambient temperature at three hot bearing detectors. The first two detectors were 10 miles apart; 20 miles separated the second from the third.
Citing a 2019 study, the consultant explained, even at 20 miles apart, that’s more frequent than average. But to Verna, from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, that patchwork is a problem. He argued regulators should establish standards for their use.
All three experts expressed concerns about the “financialization” of the rail system. With major operators prioritizing quarterly growth, they argued, investments in safety get short shrift.
“If I’m a CEO in the railroad industry and I can’t show more profits every year for five years,” Lauby said, “I’m not going to be the CEO anymore.”
Investments in safety, he said, require thinking further into the future than a given CEO will likely be around.
“And this is where the federal government comes in,” Lauby said. “Because where a railroad can’t do something because of their stockholders the federal government can say this is the new requirement and you have to put this in place, and it evens the field for everybody.”
Establishing an ECP braking system would likely require congressional action Lauby and the consultant noted. But Lauby is doubtful it will make the cut if and when Congress acts.
Verna doesn’t oppose upgrading to ECP brakes. But he argued that avoids the bigger problem of railroads attempting to maximize profits by running ever longer trains.
“It’s not just that the brake system needs to be updated, it’s the operating practices that are being engaged with this current brake system really aren’t what it was designed to do.”
The consultant agreed that railroads should pare back their train lengths. They also argued railroads need to sequence cars to better distribute their weight. Lauby added that railroads should consider a safety management system similar to the Federal Aviation Administration’s.
“The question we ask after an accident,” Verna said, “is did we do everything we could to prevent this from happening?”
“We want to be able to answer yes,” he went on. “Right now, at this point, we think there’s more that we can be doing.”
This story was first published by the Ohio Capital Journal, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.