OMAHA, Neb. — Federal investigators are opening a wide-ranging probe into one of the nation’s largest railroads after a fiery derailment on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border last month and several other accidents involving southern Norfolk, including the death of a train conductor on Tuesday.
The National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday it will launch a broad review of the company’s safety culture, the first such investigation into the railroad industry since 2014. The NTSB said it has sent investigative teams since December to examine five significant accidents involving Norfolk Southern in 2021.
The agency also urged the company to take immediate steps to review and evaluate its security practices.
On Tuesday, the Federal Railroad Administration also announced its own investigation into Norfolk Southern. FRA will release a public report after conducting a 60-day safety assessment, according to a release from the US Department of Transportation.
In a release, the FRA said Norfolk Southern should go beyond the steps announced yesterday and take actions “commensurate with the seriousness of the recent incidents.”
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw promised to hold a series of company-wide safety meetings on Wednesday – a day before he is scheduled to testify before Congress at a hearing on the East Palestine derailment.
“Moving forward, we are going to rebuild our safety culture from the ground up,” he said in a statement. “We are going to invest more in security. We are not like that, it’s unacceptable, and it won’t happen again.”
In response to the Ohio derailment, the railroad on Monday announced plans to improve the use of detectors placed along railroad tracks to detect overheated bearings and other problems.
NTSB investigators said the crew operating the train that derailed Feb. 3 outside East Palestine, Ohio, were alerted by such a detector but failed to stop the train before more than three dozen cars derailed and caught fire. .
Half of the town, home to about 5,000 people, had to be evacuated for days after emergency responders deliberately burned toxic chemicals in some of the derailed cars to prevent an uncontrolled explosion, leaving residents with health problems. Government officials say tests have not found dangerous levels of chemicals in the air or water in the area.
In the industry, Norfolk Southern has had a strong reputation for years as a safe railroad, said Christopher Barkan, director of the Center for Rail Transportation and Engineering at the University of Illinois.
FRA statistics show that since 2019, the number of accidents involving Norfolk Southern has decreased, but the number of accidents has increased over the past decade. The 119 derailments last year involving south Norfolk are the lowest in a decade. Last year, there were more than 1,000 derailments across the industry.
But the pressure on the railway company is increasing after the disaster in East Palestine.
In February, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg ordered the nation’s freight railroads to take immediate steps to improve safety while regulators focus on strengthening safety rules. Buttigieg said the department would hold the railroad accountable for any safety violations that led to the Feb. 3 crash.
President Joe Biden said on Twitter after the derailment that the past pattern of railroads resisting safety rules must change and that Congress must support efforts to improve safety.
Although government figures show that the number of derailments has fallen in recent years, there were 1,049 last year.
While most are not serious problems, of the five accidents identified by the NTSB involving Norfolk Southern since late 2021, three have resulted in the deaths of three workers.
No one was injured Saturday when a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed near Springfield, Ohio.
In the latest incident Tuesday, a train and a dump truck collided at a Cleveland steel plant, killing a train conductor standing on the side of the car, authorities said. The company said that the cause of the accident is still unknown.
Eddie Hall, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Railroad Workers union, which represents the slain worker, said the death is a reminder of the need for improved safety.
“All rail accidents are avoidable,” Hall said. “This collision highlights the need for significant improvements in rail safety for both workers and the public.”
Seewer reported from Toledo, Ohio.