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NTSB East Palestine hearings highlight Norfolk Southern's safety culture

National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy holds an exhibit up for witnesses to see.
Matthew Chasney
Ideastream Public Media
National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy holds an exhibit up for witnesses to see on June 22, 2023.

Day two of the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigative hearings on the East Palestine train derailment revealed several safety flaws in freight rail. The train derailment could have been prevented if proper safety procedures were followed, witnesses said.

The worker at Norfolk Southern’s remote wayside desk the night of the derailment did not immediately see the alarm indicating that a bearing was overheating, as they were working on other alarms from other trains. NTSB's investigation found the desk is often understaffed and overworked, Anne Garcia with the board said.

“The Norfolk Southern ATC desk supervisor stated during his interview that he had repeatedly requested additional staffing," Garcia said. "What was Norfolk Southern’s decision making in denying or providing the requested additional staffing positions?”

A Norfolk Southern official responded that since the derailment the company has added staffing to the wayside desk.

The freight rail industry’s turn to precision scheduled railroading, a service model designed to streamline operations, has caused companies to skirt safety standards, Jason Cox with the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen said.

“In recent years, the industry’s push on efficiency has evacuated a lot of outlying points and a lot of inspection points of the safety car inspection from the qualified mechanical inspector," Cox said.

The car that derailed in East Palestine was not inspected by Norfolk Southern when the company received it, Cox said.

"They would not have been allowed to look at that car per the Norfolk and Southern's policies," Cox said.

This policy stopped the car that caused the derailment from being inspected at any point during its trip, Cox said. He added there were many opportunities for the train to be inspected before it derailed.

"Had the inspectors been given the chance in interchange, there's definitely that chance to find additional issues that can prevent problems, and if that tool is there, why wouldn't you utilize it?," Cox asked. "It baffles my mind."

Had the train been allowed to be inspected, the derailment may not have occurred, Cox said.

The standard amount of time to inspect each car used to be around three minutes a side, Cox said. Now, it’s down to 30 seconds a side.

“Exhibit H-40 outlines a supervisor scorning the mechanical employees when they spent 45 seconds a side," Cox testified.

Norfolk Southern values and rewards inspections that are 30 seconds or less, Cox said.

"In 2021 where NS supervision praises the inspectors for their inspections when they got to one minute per car, which is the goal," Cox said.

Norfolk Southern is using outdated Federal Railroad Administration regulations to continue doing this, Cox said.

"They have used the regulation to skirt the inspection process," Cox said. "With there being less class one carriers, the regulation is out of date and not in touch with today's railroad structure."

The car that caused the derailment was not the only one to have defects. NTSB investigation found that 20 out of the 77 cars on the train had defects.

"It's my understanding that those defects were found visually by the Federal Railroad Administration after the disaster," Cox said, "and I'd like to reiterate that had inspectors been given the time and the man power resources to do what they need to do without the time stress that that would reduce what you're talking about."

Additionally, the NTSB investigation found that the car that derailed was stationary for months at a time several times.

"It's better for a bearing to be continuously moved than just sit," Constantine Tarawneh, director of the University Transportation Center for Railway Safety at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, said.

The NTSB finished its hearings Friday. Next, the board will release a full report with the goal of preventing future derailments.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.