Safety warning ignored, says NTSB

Cleanup operations continue on portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio on February 9, 2023.

Gene J Puskar | AP

Norfolk South Supervisors failed to address an engineer’s safety concerns before a train loaded with toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, in February on the preliminary findings of an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board released on Thursday.

The day before the train derailed, an engineer in Decatur, Illinois, had expressed concern to the station master about the size of the train, according to the NTSB. But the engineer told the agency he was told, “Well, that’s what they want,” the results showed.

“If you speak to the manager, they said this train is 100% compliant. In my opinion the weight was 32% at the head end. Twenty percent in the middle and 40 percent at the head.” “That’s why I think we reported this to the Yardmaster and like I said, that’s what they want,” said the Decatur engineer.

Norfolk Southern responded by stating that the Federal Railroad Administration had not established any regulatory train configuration requirements and that at the time of the East Palestine derailment the train was in compliance with its internal train configuration guidelines.

“Every accident is an opportunity to learn. We are working with union leadership and our craft workers to improve safety, we have hired an outside safety consultant and we aim to lead the industry,” Norfolk Southern spokesman Connor Spielmaker told CNBC in an email.

The NTSB released its findings before beginning a two-day hearing on the derailment on Thursday. The hearing will cover the preparation during the initial emergency response, the decision-making process regarding the venting and incineration of the vinyl chloride tank cars, and examine the modes of failure of freight car bearings and trackside detection systems.

On February 3, a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous chemicals derails, releasing toxic chemicals into the environment near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw has pledged support to residents of East Palestine, Ohio, despite critics saying he hadn’t gone far enough.

A period of three minutes to three minutes and 45 seconds is sufficient for maintenance personnel to inspect a train car, the Transportation Communications Union NTSB said in a separate statement. However, the union said Norfolk Southern had reduced the average inspection time to about a minute as a result of the company’s new train scheduling strategies, which TCU says is insufficient for a comprehensive inspection of each train.

The company responded that there are no policies limiting the time for vehicle inspections.

Norfolk Southern once again denied the union’s claim, stating that the current average time for vehicle inspections is about two minutes. The company said this was a minute longer than the average set by professional craft railroad workers who performed the same inspection and acted as a guide for the crews.

“It is not correct to say that since the introduction of PSR, NS has ‘reduced’ the standard time for a vehicle inspection. What we’ve done is document and standardize what a proper inspection looks like and how much time a qualified inspector should take to do it.” “We’re asking the railroad worker to complete this inspection,” Spielmaker said.

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