US Norfolk Southern announces safety plan following derailments

Adam Yanelli


HOUSTON (ICIS)–US railroad Norfolk Southern on Monday announced a six-point plan that it said will immediately enhance the safety of its operations.

The action comes on the heels of a derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that led to vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) and other chemicals being burned off.

The accident had little-to-no effect on markets but has placed renewed emphasis on rail safety.

The railroad, which has had at least two derailments following the incident in East Palestine, Ohio – including one over the weekend in Springfield, Ohio, in which no cars were carrying hazardous material – said it is taking action following the release of the preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

“Reading the NTSB report makes it clear that meaningful safety requirements require a comprehensive industry effort that brings together railcar and tank car manufacturers, railcar owners and lessors, and the railroad companies,” the railroad said.

Norfolk Southern said it will immediately begin the following initiatives:

  • Enhance the hot bearing detector network
  • Pilot next-generation hot bearing detectors
  • Work with industry on practices for hot bearing detectors
  • Deploy more acoustic bearing detectors
  • Accelerate its Digital Train Inspection programme
  • Support a strong safety culture

“We are eager to help drive that effort and we are not waiting to take action,” Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan H Shaw said.

The railroad announced late last week that it is joining the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA’s) Confidential Close Call Reporting System, which it said “marks another step we are taking to further our commitment to safety at Norfolk Southern and throughout our industry”.

The US Department of Transportation’s FRA issued a safety advisory on 3 March, making recommendations to enhance the mechanical reliability of moving trains.

The advisory recommends that railroads evaluate the thresholds for inspections based on hot bearing detector (HBD) data and use real-time trend analysis of the HBD data as criteria for inspections.

The advisory also urges proper training and qualifications for personnel responsible for the calibration, inspection and maintenance of the HBDs, as well as ensuring the proper inspection of moving trains with HBD alerts.

FRA advisories are considered guidance and they do not have authority to enforce.

Meanwhile, after a group of US senators introduced bipartisan legislation aimed at improving rail safety, the initiative is facing headwinds.

The political publication The Hill reported on Monday that some top-level Republican senators are not ready to commit to supporting the bill.

The Association of American Railroads (AAR), the trade group for the railroad industry, noted FRA data showing that rail accidents are at historic lows.

Source: Federal Railroad Administration

The train accident rate is down 28% since 2000, and the last decade was the safest ever, the AAR said.

Notable statistics, calculated per million train miles using data released in March 2023 by the FRA, include:

  • Class I railroads’ mainline accident rate is at an all-time low and down 49% since 2000. For all railroads, that rate has declined 44% since 2000.
  • For all railroads, the derailment rate is down 31% since 2000, but despite that longer-term positive trend, it was up by 3% year on year.
  • Track-caused accidents are down 55% since 2000 and are at their lowest-ever rate across the entire rail industry.
  • Equipment-caused accidents were down 21% since 2000 but increased by 15% compared with 2021.
  • Per carload, the hazardous materials (hazmat) accident rate is down 78% since 2000 and the lowest ever based on preliminary Bureau of Explosives data.

The railroad industry is vital to chemicals markets.

In the US, chemical railcar loadings represent about 20% of chemical transportation by tonnage, with trucks, barges and pipelines carrying the rest.

In Canada, chemical producers rely on rail to ship more than 70% of their products, with some exclusively using rail.

Focus article by Adam Yanelli


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