The rail crash in East Palestine, Ohio, has highlighted a glaring gap in federal safety regulations that has left the railroad industry to set its own standards for the use of sensors that can warn train crews about impending derailments.
As Norfolk Southern’s Train 32N traveled toward East Palestine on Feb. 3, it passed a series of detectors along the track designed to pick up overheated wheel bearings, a major cause of derailments. The temperature of a bearing on the train’s 23rd car rose before the train reached the town.
But then there wasn’t another heat detector for almost 20 miles, by which time the temperature had soared to critical levels, setting off an alarm. As the crew engaged the brakes, the bearing broke, and the car and 37 others derailed, spilling a cargo of toxic chemicals and prompting officials to authorize a controlled burn of hazardous substances.
The accident has devastated East Palestine’s economy, stoked anger and anguish among its residents, and forced an examination of whether freight railways, which have grown much more profitable in recent years, have gone too far in pushing for greater efficiency at the expense of safety, staffing levels and working conditions.
The Federal Railroad Administration, a tiny agency overseeing a multibillion-dollar industry, lets rail companies set some of their own standards. When the agency does act, it sometimes issues guidance that railroads are not obligated to follow.
While federal investigators haven’t concluded what caused the accident, which caused no injuries, some safety experts said that if Norfolk Southern had more detectors closer together near East Palestine, the train crew might have had more time to avert disaster.
Had there been a detector earlier, “that derailment may not have occurred,” said Jennifer Homendy, the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident.
Federal railway regulators last week identified two other Norfolk Southern derailments last year that appeared to involve overheated bearings. Another Norfolk Southern train derailed on Saturday in Springfield, Ohio, though the company and the safety board declined to identify a cause.
The federal government does not require the use of temperature detectors along tracks, nor does it regulate how such equipment is inspected or maintained. Those decisions are left up to railroads and their trade association.
There is a wide range of opinion on how closely these devices should be placed. A bipartisan bill on rail safety introduced last week would require sensors after every 10 miles on tracks over which hazardous materials are transported.
The Train Derailment in East Palestine, Ohio
When a freight train derailed in Ohio on Feb. 3, it set off evacuation orders, a toxic chemical scare and a federal investigation.
In 2019, the Association of American Railroads, which lobbies on behalf of its members and sets many standards for the industry, set 40 miles as the maximum distance between detectors. That is far more than the 15 miles that the association’s research arm previously said was “ideal for sensor spacing.”
Jessica Kahanek, a spokeswoman for the association, said that railway companies typically spaced their detectors more closely than 40 miles, and that the industry had introduced a variety of sensors. She added that research by the Federal Railway Administration, an arm of the Department of Transportation, validated that the group’s work had improved safety.
“A tireless pursuit to prevent accidents and data guide all railroad decisions,” Ms. Kahanek added in a statement. “That is why they have long taken steps ahead of or exceeding those in federal regulations. The result: the safest decade ever for the industry.”
Last year, there were 280 derailments on mainline tracks, down from 294 in 2021 and well below the 341 in 2019, according to federal data. Overheated bearings, the leading cause, accounted for 5 percent of the total in the past four years.
But because derailments of trains carrying hazardous materials can be so dangerous, railroad companies’ use of safety detectors is now under intense scrutiny. Five of the derailed tank cars in East Palestine were carrying vinyl chloride, which is used to make plastic and can release hydrogen chloride and other toxic chemicals when burned.
In an indication of how important the placement of the sensors is, the N.T.S.B.’s preliminary investigation has found that the first car to derail was less than half a mile past the detector that sent the critical warning just before the accident.
Norfolk Southern said on Monday that it anticipated adding 200 detectors along its 19,300 miles of track, most of it in the eastern half of the country. The first of those would be installed near East Palestine.
In an apparent acknowledgment that detectors may need to be closer together, the company said it would look at stretches of track where detectors were more than 15 miles apart and “develop a plan to deploy additional detectors where practical, due to terrain and operating conditions.”
CSX, another large railway, with 20,000 miles of track, has ordered an additional 53 detectors after the accident in Ohio, said Bryan Tucker, a company spokesman. He added that CSX’s hot bearing detectors were on average 16.2 miles apart.
Some lawmakers said the railroads were not going far enough.
“Rail lobbyists have fought stronger safety standards for years, and Ohio communities like East Palestine and Springfield have paid the price,” Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, said in a statement to The New York Times on Monday.
“Corporations like Norfolk Southern have proven they can’t be trusted to put safety ahead of their own profits,” added Mr. Brown, who is one of the sponsors of the bipartisan rail bill introduced last week. “They cut corners on inspections and other precautions to cut their costs, while spending billions on stock buybacks that enrich executives.”
Changes in federal regulation that would compel railways to make safety upgrades can take many months or years, and then sometimes are challenged in court, delaying them further.
The Federal Railroad Administration can lean on the industry to make changes more quickly through safety advisories and emergency orders. In 2015, after a spate of derailments involving oil-carrying trains, the agency issued a safety advisory that recommended changes designed to bolster the use of wheel stress detectors.
Sarah Feinberg, the acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration at that time, said railway chief executives had griped about the advisory, saying elements of it were unnecessary.
“Frequently, I would hear from rail C.E.O.s themselves saying, ‘We think that this goes too far,’” she said. “I was always glad to hear that feedback. But it never changed what we were doing.”
The agency took other steps to improve railway safety during President Barack Obama’s second term, including a rule aimed at strengthening the regulation of tank cars that carry hazardous materials. Hot bearing detectors were not part of any overhaul, however.
Without government rules on the detectors, railroad companies had much leeway to decide where to place them, what temperatures to set them at and how often to inspect them.
Chris Hand, the head of research for the Brotherhood of Signalmen, a railway union, said Norfolk Southern around 2019 removed a senior type of inspector from the track division that runs through East Palestine. This left more work for signal maintainers, who have to try to fit inspections of hot bearing detectors in with federally mandated tests of other equipment, he said.
“The railroads can self-regulate these detectors as they wish,” Mr. Hand said, “and kind of come up with their own guidelines as to when they need to be checked.”
A Norfolk Southern spokeswoman, Katelyn Byrd, said the railway “regularly evaluates personnel needs for maintenance and inspection based on new equipment being installed as well as other operational changes.”
“Norfolk Southern has hired and trained more than 150 new signal employees, and we continue to hire,” she added.
Ms. Homendy of the N.T.S.B. said last month that the agency had not detected any operational problems with the hot bearing detectors in the approach to East Palestine but was still looking at them.
Rail unions said the Ohio accident underscored their longstanding concerns about a drive for efficiency that has swept the industry in recent years, cheered on by Wall Street investors.
That push is embodied by a practice known as precision scheduled railroading, which is loosely defined but generally involves adhering to stricter train schedules, streamlining processes, and cutting back on equipment and rail yard workers and inspectors. Over the past five years, for example, employment among the nation’s largest freight rail carriers has fallen about 18 percent, according to federal data.
Frustration over those practices nearly brought the industry to a standstill last fall when workers threatened to strike over what they described as punishing working conditions and limited sick leave.
In a letter to Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio last week, a union official said Norfolk Southern had approached him after the East Palestine derailment to offer union members paid sick leave in exchange for the union’s withdrawing formal opposition to an automated track inspection program.
The company wanted to “use your community’s safety as their bargaining chip to further pursue their record profits,” the official, Jonathon Long, wrote. He is the general chairman of the American Rail System Federation of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, a division of the Teamsters.
In many cases, the drive for efficiency has left rail yard workers with less time to inspect train cars, said John Feltz, railroad division director at the Transport Workers Union, which represents car inspectors, car repairmen and other workers at Amtrak, CSX, Norfolk Southern and other companies. As a result, inspectors may miss telltale signs of a broken bearing, such as grease leaks, or other problems.
“If you have enough time to inspect properly, you may have been able to see that was leaking and you could have stopped it right then and there,” he said.
Still, Mr. Feltz said such inspections were limited. Bearings are sealed components and don’t always show signs of problems, such as leaks, the Federal Railroad Administration said in a recent safety advisory. And defective bearings can operate normally for tens of thousands of miles before registering a spike in temperature, according to the agency.
When problems are detected, freight rail companies can remove cars, many of which are owned by shippers or leasing companies, and have them repaired, under the railroad association’s rules. The car’s owners bear the costs.
The first car to derail in East Palestine belonged to GATX, a Chicago-based company that owns about 144,000 rail cars, which it leases to businesses that need to ship goods by rail. In a statement, the company said it took safety issues seriously and was cooperating with the N.T.S.B. investigation.
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