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Could new rail safety rules prevent the next East Palestine? More sensors could be key, experts say

 A train passes through East Palestine, Ohio, on Thursday, April 6, 2023.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
A train passes through East Palestine, Ohio, on Thursday, April 6, 2023.

The February train derailment in East Palestine has raised questions about the safety of freight rail companies. Now, the U.S. Congress is considering two pieces of legislation that would address the use of wayside defect detectors, sensors along the rails that can notify train operators of trouble.

A railroad track
Andrew Meyer
Ideastream Public Media
Several Norfolk Southern lines go through Northeast Ohio communities, including this line in Hudson pictured on April 12, 2023.

Clyde Whitaker is a fourth-generation railroader and has worked in the industry for more than 20 years. He almost got crushed to death during his third week on the job and that shaped his passion for rail safety.

“I almost got pinched in a closed clearance, because a conductor was using me as a brakeman because we were short-staffed at the time," Whitaker said. "He kind of put me in a bad situation.”

Now, Whitaker works as Ohio's state legislative board director for the Sheet, Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation, or SMART, Union Transportation Division. SMART and other unions have been calling for increased safety precautions for the rail industry that they say would have prevented the derailment in East Palestine. Whitaker remembers talking during a labor rally in December about the need for more safety measures.

“I’m like, 'It’s just a matter of time before we blow a city off the map,'" Whitaker said, "and seven weeks later, here we are.”

Cleanup continues on Feb. 24, 2023, at the site of a Norfolk Southern freight train derailment that happened on Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio.
Matt Freed
Cleanup continues on Feb. 24, 2023, at the site of a Norfolk Southern freight train derailment that happened on Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio.

The Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern derailment upended life in the small town of East Palestine. Although the crash and controlled release of chemicals the train was carrying caused no reported injuries or deaths, residents have been complaining of health issues related to the derailment for months. In discussing the National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary report on the derailment, Chair Jennifer Homendy said the derailment was preventable.

“We've never seen an accident that isn't preventable," Homendy said. "I don't like the word accident. I hate to use it. Nothing is an accident.”

The report largely centered on the role of hot-bearing detectors in the derailment. These detectors are a way for workers to be notified of defects on the train, Whitaker explained.

“There’s a wayside box that communicates to and from the train or to and from a special location designated by the railroads," Whitaker said.

Different detectors can notify crews of hot wheels, hot bearings and more, Whitaker said. In the case of the East Palestine crash, the crew was alerted of a hot axle when a detector registered a reading of 253 degrees Fahrenheit as the train passed by. Norfolk Southern’s criteria for bearings states temperatures greater than 200 degrees mean trains must be stopped. But in the case of the train in East Palestine, by the time the crew was notified of the overheated bearing, it was too late to stop a derailment.

Whitaker blames the derailment on the fact that the federal government does not regulate defect detectors at all.

“Basically, anything with the defect detectors strictly voluntary by the railroad," Whitaker said. "If I owned a railroad, I don’t have to have them.”

But Nick Little, the director of Railway Education at Michigan State University, said voluntary adoption of the detectors has improved safety.

“From the time that the hot bearing detectors were introduced, there’s been a significant, and I do mean very significant, reduction in the number of derailments that have been caused by failed bearings," Little said.

He thinks that’s why the federal government has never regulated defect detectors.

“What we’ve got now has produced such excellent results that they didn’t feel it was necessary to force the railroads to do anything further," Little said.

But regulation may be coming soon. A bipartisan group from Ohio’s congressional delegation has introduced two bills that would increase rail safety and regulate defect detectors. The bills would establish requirements for how many defect detectors railroads should have and at what temperature crews should be notified of overheating. And the Federal Railroad Administration has promised additional rules to bolster safety.

Little said he'd like to see defect detectors be placed closer together in certain instances.

"The higher the line speed the closer the detectors ought to be to be able to catch any issues and warn the crew," he said.

Railroads are incentivized to make temperature thresholds high, Whitaker said.

"Now if I lower that, which would be the right thing to do, we're going to get a lot more defects," Whitaker said. "That's going to cost me a lot more money, so that's going to lower my bottom line. Stockholders aren't going to be very happy, and they're going to have hurt feelings."

Even without the federal government stepping in, Little expects the rail industry to increase safety itself.

“Each accident has been a learning point, so we’ve actually learned," Little said. "And we’ve modified the designs. We’ve modified the procedures. We’ve modified the rules accordingly.”

Last month, Norfolk Southern announced a six-point safety plan that would add 200 more defect detectors to the railroad. But Whitaker remains skeptical.

“This six-point plan’s all smoke and mirrors," Whitaker said. "Soon as the cameras are turned off, probably ain’t going to happen.”

Regulation aside, Little said he's hopeful new technology could bolster the efficacy of defect detectors.

Some rail companies, like CSX, have for the last year or so been connecting the signals that come out of all their detectors, Little said.

That means "you can see the history of every single accident over a journey," he said. "You can tell whether the temperature is beginning to rise."

Norfolk Southern, however, doesn't use this technology, which is one of the reasons the crew in East Palestine didn't know the axle was getting hot until it was too late.

"That's a more effective means than what was in effect in East Palestine on that line," Little said.

A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern.
Gene J. Puskar
A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern Monday, Feb. 6, 2023.

There's also some new technology being adopted in Europe that could make a difference, Little said.

"The way to actually get better prediction is to have the sensor on the railcar itself so that you can then more continuously monitor the whole railcar," Little said.

Even with the hope of better technology on the horizon, Whitaker thinks that railroad corporate greed will outweigh safety.

The railroad industry is hauling hazardous materials through cities and towns all over the country, Whitaker said.

"We're going to affect not only the people in that area, we're going to affect the whole city like we've seen in East Palestine, and these railroads, they don't care."

Until the federal government steps in to regulate defect detectors, it’ll continue to be up to the railroads to decide where to deploy them.

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