Comment: Ohio train wreck can’t yet be dismissed as a one-off

A preliminary NTSB report is only four pages long. It will take much longer to outline proper fixes.

By Brooke Sutherland / Bloomberg Opinion

The Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, earlier this month looks more like a case of bad luck than gross negligence. But that doesn’t mean the railroad or the industry is off the hook.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Thursday released the preliminary findings from its investigation into the Feb. 3 accident, which sent cars carrying toxic chemicals off the tracks, forcing a controlled release and ignition of vinyl chloride — a colorless, carcinogenic gas that’s used to make hard plastic resin — to prevent a potentially catastrophic explosion. The accident appears to have been triggered by an overheated bearing on the train’s 23rd car, according to the NTSB. Norfolk Southern had equipped the rail line with heat detectors, which are designed to warn crews when wheel temperatures get out of whack. The train passed three of these sensors on its trip before derailing; the first and second checkpoints registered bearing temperatures that were below warning thresholds established by Norfolk Southern for conditions that warrant stopping and inspecting the train. When the train passed the third sensor some 20 miles later, the temperature of the bearing had jumped considerably and the rail line detectors sounded an audible alarm. The crew was trying to slow and stop the train when it derailed.

The NTSB report is short; it runs only four pages. A deeper investigation will take many months and include an examination of Norfolk Southern’s use of heat detectors and railcar inspection practices, the train’s wheelset, tank car design and the accident response. There is no evidence of track defects or crew mistakes, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said during a press conference Thursday. But at least based on the information that’s available so far, the train derailment can’t be unequivocally attributed to deliberate safety laxness or corporate greed gone awry.

Unfortunately that public relations train, to borrow a phrase, has long left the station.

Norfolk Southern’s brief and procedural updates in the initial days after the accident created an information void that was filled by speculation and political punditry. Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro has accused the company of “arrogance and incompetence.” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has called out Norfolk Southern for its past efforts (along with the other large railroads) to lobby against measures intended to improve rail safety, including regulations on electronic braking. Rail unions have used the accident as an opportunity to highlight the risks of precision-scheduled railroading; a cost-cutting strategy focused on shrinking the workforce, running longer trains and closing rail yards. Regardless of its ultimate culpability, Norfolk Southern made itself vulnerable to these criticisms. The industry’s lobbying and cost-cutting records are unflattering when trains are operating as normal and make for an obvious punching bag when something goes wrong.

Whether or not Norfolk Southern and the broader rail industry have a systemic problem with safety is a question that falls well outside the scope of the initial NTSB findings. But even if this accident is the unfortunate, one-off that it appears to be, that doesn’t mean better safeguards aren’t a good idea. “This was 100 percent preventable,” Homendy said during the press conference in comments reported by Axios. “We call things accidents. This is no accident. Every single event we investigate is preventable.” Norfolk Southern has also said as much: “It’s pretty clear that our safety culture and our investments in safety didn’t prevent this accident,” Chief Executive Officer Alan Shaw said in an interview on CNBC this week. “And so we need to take a look at this and see what we can do differently and what we can do better.”

A big part of that starts with communication. It took Norfolk Southern way too long to issue a full-throated public statement of accountability, but it did eventually do so. Industrial operators typically allow government regulators and first responders to take the lead on communication in incidents such as this one. But in the age of 24/7 news cycles and social media, this gave the unfortunate impression of a company being dragged into doing the right thing after public pressure mounted.

Not for nothing, this accountability moment came much faster for the railroad than it did for Boeing in the wake of two fatal crashes of its 737 Max jet that killed 346 people. The aerospace manufacturer resisted calls for simulator training requirements for Max pilots until 10 months into a global grounding of the jet. No deaths or injuries have been connected to the train derailment accident, but local residents are understandably angry and worried about the impact of the crash and subsequent chemical release on their health and the environment. Norfolk Southern “will stay here for as long as it takes to ensure your safety and to help East Palestine recover and thrive,” Shaw said in a Feb. 16 letter to the community. The company has pledged to do whatever is necessary to clean up the site; this includes a plan announced this week to rip up its tracks to remove contaminated soil underneath. The Environmental Protection Agency has said it will use the federal Superfund law to make sure Norfolk Southern follows through.

As for mechanical safety issues, operating standards for the heat sensors at the center of the NTSB’s preliminary report don’t currently fall under federal regulation; perhaps that should change. The rate of train accidents caused by axle and bearing problems has declined 59 percent since 1990 amid wider adoption of the heat detectors, the Federal Railroad Administration said in a 2019 report. Still, “a bearing can become overheated very quickly and may even burn off in just 1 to 3 minutes,” the agency wrote. Temperature alone may not be a sufficient indicator of bearing health and a better system may also take into account load and vibration, according to a 2019 article published in the International Journal of Rail Transportation and funded through a U.S. Department of Transportation grant.

It’s worth noting that at no point over the past few weeks has the intricacies of heat-box detectors been the focus of any of the many politicians who have weighed in on the accident.

Tougher standards on the durability for train cars carrying hazardous materials might also help. NTSB Chair Homendy has said a 2015 Obama administration rule requiring the installation of electronic braking systems wouldn’t have applied to the Norfolk Southern train even if the regulations had not been overturned a few years later by the Trump White House. It’s unclear if a broader mandate for a railroad braking overhaul would have made a difference in this derailment.

Norfolk Southern needs to back up its pledge to work collaboratively with regulators on safety upgrades with actual action. It shouldn’t come to this, but accidents have a way of forcing a deeper assessment of existing safety measures. Smoking gun or not, Norfolk Southern and the other main North American railroads must learn from this derailment and make their operations safer.

Brooke Sutherland is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and industrial companies. A former M&A reporter for Bloomberg News, she writes the Industrial Strength newsletter.

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