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Rail safety legislation lingers as NTSB wraps East Palestine probe

Summary report due Tuesday is expected to address mechanical issues

The site of the derailed freight train in East Palestine, Ohio.
The site of the derailed freight train in East Palestine, Ohio. (NTSB/Handout via Xinhua)

The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday is set to conclude its investigation into the derailment and chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio, a milestone that some lawmakers say is necessary before enacting rail safety legislation.

The board is expected to approve its final report on the February 2023 Norfolk Southern catastrophe that sent volatile substances into the surrounding air, soil and water. It will release an executive summary, though the full report won’t be published for several weeks later.

Within the findings, advocates for greater rail safety are eager to spotlight flaws in the system that could be addressed by legislation or greater oversight. The industry, which touts its safety actions in response to the derailment, is looking for validation that its procedures are sufficient.

In a preliminary report, the NTSB pointed to an overheated wheel bearing on one of the rail cars as the main contributor to the derailment.

By the time the train passed a milepost near the derailment site, the suspect bearing was 253 degrees Farenheit above the ambient temperature, according to a system that scans for temperature differences and other mechanical problems as trains pass.

Norfolk Southern’s guidelines say that if that difference is greater than 200 degrees, the situation is determined to be “critical,” the crew is alarmed and engineers need to “set out” the car for maintenance.

But the four-page preliminary report didn’t delve into technical details about the derailment — including whether the detectors designed to warn crew of derailment hazards were working properly — or address Norfolk Southern’s alert systems, inspection practices, tank car design and accident response.

Awaiting answers

No federal regulations require railroads to employ the detectors. Yet the alert system’s functionality is among the most pressing issues for industry and rail safety advocates like Fritz Edler, a veteran locomotive engineer and current international special representative at the union Railroad Workers United. He said in an interview that questions remain whether the hot bearing detectors were working properly and if they were optimally located.

The preliminary report indicated that they were functional, he said, because they picked up increasing temperatures of the affected bearing. He’s concerned about what went wrong in the line of communication with the crew that led to temperatures well over the “critical” threshold.

Edler said in his past experience, the detectors would alarm the entire crew in the event of any increased bearing temperature. But some railroads have since changed the line of communication so that increased temperature messages go to an off-site pilot who is in contact with the crew.

“[The rail pilot] has screens all around him, and there’s routes all around him and he’s responsible for all of it. And he has to somehow be on top of each one of them at all times,” Edler said. “You have to talk about the fact that they had detectors, the detectors turned up evidence and they didn’t do anything about it.”

Norfolk Southern said it sends alerts to both the crew and the off-site monitors, and has claimed that the temperature of the bearing rose too quickly in the moments before the derailment for the crew to respond. But Edler said the preliminary report suggests that the crew wasn’t notified about the overheated bearing until it reached the “critical” threshold.

The company announced after the initial NTSB report that it intends to install more than 200 new hot bearing detectors on its system and would evaluate the distance between detectors.

The Association of American Railroads, the largest rail industry association, is also looking for the NTSB final report to shed light on how railroads should tighten detector algorithms and operational protocols.

Others want tougher tank car standards, which the industry largely supports, as tank cars are typically owned by shippers rather than rail companies.

Railroads are also interested in ways to improve emergency communications with first responders, as some reports after the derailment found that those on the scene struggled to obtain information about which hazardous materials the cars were carrying.

Edler added he is also curious if the NTSB will find fault with the order of the train cars, called train marshaling. For example, putting heavier cars in the back of a line can increase risk of derailments, as well as make them more hazardous, he said.

But Edler said he is not confident that this report will shed light on big-picture rail safety issues, like precision scheduled railroading, a strategy to use longer trains and fewer staff to cut down on costs. He added that practice goes hand in hand with new marshaling techniques.

“In traditional practices, you would distribute the weight in an appropriate way for the dynamics of operating and training,” he said. “If they had done the marshaling in the right way, it’s possible that that wreck would have still happened, but it would have been greatly ameliorated.”

Impact on Congress

The NTSB, an independent panel, is charged only with investigating and making nonbinding recommendations. Railroads have touted their safety actions since the derailment, but the onus is on federal regulators and lawmakers to ensure they meet safety standards.

Although some Republicans have rallied behind legislation from Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and J.D. Vance, a Republican, to boost safety, Vance’s assurances that the bill is not “big government” haven’t swayed some in his party.

Senate Democrats a few weeks ago attempted to “hotline” the bill, a process that allows them to essentially test if a measure could get through the chamber without much opposition. Senate Commerce Committee Republicans blocked it. The committee advanced the bill in May along a mostly party-line vote, with Vance and Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Mo., the only Republicans in favor.

Even though some House GOP transportation leaders have said they intend to wait for the NTSB final report before considering rail safety measures, its release isn’t likely to spur a vote, said a source familiar with negotiations over the bills.

Many House GOP members see the Senate bill as a knee-jerk reaction to the incident. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Sam Graves, R-Mo., held off consideration despite calls from former Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, who represented East Palestine, to take up his version. Graves will likely read the report very closely but, unless there is a very compelling argument, he won’t take up rail safety legislation, the source said.

Brown has blamed railroad lobbying for keeping his bill from moving forward. According to OpenSecrets data, Norfolk Southern spent $2.3 million on federal lobbying last year, up from $1.8 million in 2022.

“[Norfolk Southern] continues to oppose this rail safety bill,” Brown said in an interview earlier this year. “There’s a path forward [on the bill], we’re going to get it scheduled. . . . It hasn’t happened because of the railroad, you know the railroad lobby has been powerful for 100 years.”