Train car believed responsible for derailment had not been recently inspected
EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — An investigation into the East Palestine train derailment is highlighting concerns about safety in the railroad industry.
Friday wrapped up a two-day investigative hearing by the National Transporation Safety Board (NTSB). In a rare move, the agency elected to hold the hearing in the field rather than Washington, DC., to give residents better access to the process.
The NTSB is investigating what happened before, during and after a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in the small community on February 3. The derailment and subsequent release of hazmat material from damaged tankers forced a temporary evacuation of the town and has left some worried about the long-term effects on their health, the environment and the area’s economy.
“The anxiety and PTSD that will come from this event for many people is heartbreaking. I know my kids hear a train whistle and they’re like… ‘A train’s going by.’ So it’s just heartbreaking,” said Robin Semen, who lives about three miles from the derailment site with her six children.
Semen and others have told News 5 they’ve been frustrated by the seemingly slow release of information and the response by the railroad and government.
“The toughest part has been finding the information,” she said.
She attended both days of the NTSB hearing with her children, hoping to glean more details about what caused the derailment and the measures to prevent future disasters.
Friday’s segment focused on safety regulations within the railroad industry and Norfolk Southern. Labor union representatives testified the train had not been recently inspected before it derailed in East Palestine. Some criticized the industry for a decline in the time and quality of inspections in recent years and believe the extra step could have detected issues with an overheated wheel bearing, which investigators believe caused the derailment.
“They have used the regulation to skirt the inspection process,” said Jason Cox, a national representative for the Transportation Communications Union.
The NTSB investigation revealed federal regulators sent a letter to Norfolk Southern and other railroad companies in September 2022 to warn against skirting inspections by not checking their trains in terminals. The board also presented labor data from the past decade, showing a more than 60% decline in the number of equipment maintenance workers.
“They were going to do more with less, improve efficiencies by driving employees to work harder and longer [which means] more fatigue, more safety-related issues,” Randy Fannon, the Vice President of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainment, told News 5.
The former railroad engineer blames a relatively new service model known as Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) for what he believes is an emphasis on efficiency over safety and employee well-being.
“When you have less people doing those measurements and you still have [less] time to get the train out, they’re being pushed to reduce those inspections so corners are being cut,” Fannon explained.
Cox testified the average inspection of each railcar has decreased from 3 minutes to 1 minute on the urging of railroad inspectors looking to maximize productivity.
A spokesperson for Norfolk Southern told News 5 the railroad announced a move away from singularly focusing on efficiency ratios in December.
“NS is not focused solely on achieving the lowest operating ratio, but rather balancing our strategy to drive growth, deliver for our customers, and retain our workforce,” the spokesperson said.
Other experts testified Friday that the addition of more safety systems may detect issues sooner. Along its route to East Palestine, the train passed several “hot box detectors,” which measure temperature. One alerted the train’s crew of the overheating wheel bearing shortly before the train derailed. Some experts suggest adding a combination of vibration and temperature sensors to provide earlier notice of potential issues.
For its part, Norfolk Southern said its current systems are effective, but it is already implementing changes to improve safety.
“While safety mechanisms were not able to prevent this accident in this instance, we are committed to learning from it, and we have worked every day with industry partners, regulators and the NTSB to continue to improve railroad safety,” said Jared Hopewell, the Senior Director of Communications and Signals for Norfolk Southern.
Neighbors in East Palestine hope the NTSB hearing helps create safety improvements within the railroad industry. Semen said she also hopes the railroad will remain committed to helping the community affected by the derailment.
“You have to back it up. Words are cheap,” she said.
The NTSB hearing also covered the function of the train cars carrying hazardous material, as well as the emergency response to the derailment, including the decision to vent and burn toxic chemicals inside damaged tankers.
You can read more about the NTSB’s investigation into the February 3 derailment by clicking on this link.