Prove your humanity

Norfolk Southern announced Monday it is implementing a six-point safety plan in the wake of last month’s train derailment that released hazardous chemicals along the Ohio and Pennsylvania border. 

The plan focuses on improving the railroad’s surveillance of potentially faulty railcars by placing more sensors near the track that detect problems like the kind that derailed a Norfolk Southern train on February 3. 

Federal investigators found last month that the so-called hotbox sensors near East Palestine, Ohio, were 20 miles apart. The crew of the train was alerted to an overheated wheel bearing only moments before the train derailed. 

Norfolk Southern’s plan would add 200 sensors to its railroads, and speed up the development of more modern inspection equipment. The company said it would examine every stretch of railroad where detectors are 15 miles apart or more and try to place detectors – where possible – inside those stretches. 

A bill introduced in Congress last week would mandate the detectors be placed no more than 10 miles apart. 

Under its plan, Norfolk Southern would also join the Federal Railroad Administration’s Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS), which allows for anonymous safety reporting by rail workers. 

Rail unions have criticized railroad companies for reducing staff by around 30 percent, a reduction they say have made trains less safe. Matt Weaver, Ohio legislative director for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division-International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said in an email that Norfolk Southern’s plan “says nothing about restoring the vast number of workers” the railroad has let go, a move he thinks could help improve safety.

“It’s very frustrating that it takes a catastrophe for the carrier to participate in the Federal Railroad Administration’s Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS),” Weaver said. 

Allan Zarembski, director of the Railroad Engineering and Safety program at the University of Delaware, said in an email the plan was “a good incremental approach to addressing the overheated bearing class of derailments.” 

He said overheated bearings – like the kind investigators believe derailed the East Palestine train – only derail about 11 trains per year. Overall, there are over 1,000 derailments in the US annually, according to federal data.