Norfolk Southern engineer’s safety warning was unheeded before Ohio derailment, NTSB says

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Cleanup efforts continue on portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, Feb. 9, 2023.
Gene J. Puskar | AP

Norfolk Southern supervisors didn’t address an engineer’s safety concerns before a train loaded with toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio in February, according to findings released Thursday from a National Transportation Safety Board investigation.

The day before the train derailed, an engineer in Decatur, Illinois, had voiced his concern about the size of the train to the yardmaster, according to the NTSB. But the engineer told the agency that he was told, “Well, this is what they want,” the findings showed.

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“If you talk to the manager, they said this train was 100% rule compliant. To me, in my opinion, you know, you got 32% of the weight on the headend. Twenty percent in the middle and 40% weight on the rearend. So, to me, that’s why we reported that to the yardmaster and like I said this is what they want,” the Decatur engineer said.

Norfolk Southern responded by saying that the Federal Railroad Administration has not set out regulatory requirements on train configuration, and that the train met its internal policies regarding train configuration at the time of the East Palestine derailment. 

“Every accident is an opportunity to learn. We are collaborating with labor leadership and our craft employees to enhance safety, we’ve brought in an outside safety consultant, and we are committed to leading the industry,” Norfolk Southern spokesman Connor Spielmaker told CNBC in an email.

The NTSB released its findings before it began a two-day hearing on the derailment Thursday. The hearing is intended to address preparedness during the initial emergency response, the decision-making process regarding venting and burning the vinyl chloride tank cars, and the examination of freight car bearing failure modes and wayside detection systems.

On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed, releasing toxic chemicals into the environment near Ohio’s border with Pennsylvania. Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw has pledged support for residents of East Palestine, Ohio, although critics have said he hasn’t gone far enough.

A duration of three minutes to three minutes and 45 seconds is adequate for maintenance personnel to inspect a train car, the Transportation Communications Union told NTSB in a separate statement. But the union said that Norfolk Southern has decreased the average inspection time to around one minute following the company’s new train scheduling strategies, which TCU believes is insufficient for a comprehensive inspection of each train.

The company responded that it doesn’t have a policy limiting time for car inspections.

Norfolk Southern took further exception with the union’s allegation, saying that the current average car inspection time is approximately two minutes. The company said that is one minute longer than the average that was set by professional craft railroaders performing the same inspection and offered as a guide to crews.

“It is not accurate to say NS has ‘reduced’ the standard amount of time for a car inspection since the implementation of PSR. What we have done is documented and standardized what a proper inspection looks like, and the time it should take a qualified railroader to complete that inspection,” Spielmaker said.

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