N.T.S.B. Will Investigate Norfolk Southern’s Safety Practices

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The agency said it was opening a special investigation because the railway has had several significant accidents since late 2021.

Two derailed rail cars sit in a field in East Palestine, Ohio. There is a construction vehicle in between them in the distance.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it would investigate the “safety culture” at Norfolk Southern after several significant accidents at the railroad.Credit…Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Mark WalkerPeter Eavis

The National Transportation Safety Board said on Tuesday that it had opened a special investigation into safety practices at Norfolk Southern because the company had suffered five significant accidents since December 2021, including a major derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, last month.

Norfolk Southern has been under scrutiny since that derailment of a train carrying hazardous materials on Feb. 3. Another of its freight trains derailed on Saturday near Springfield, Ohio. And hours before the board’s announcement, a Norfolk Southern employee was killed in an accident at a steel plant in Cleveland.

Three of the five accidents that the N.T.S.B. listed resulted in the deaths of Norfolk Southern employees. On Dec. 8, 2021, in Reed, Pa., a worker was killed after being struck by a spike machine that was reversing direction. A year later, a trainee conductor was killed and another conductor was injured when “the lead locomotive of a Norfolk Southern freight train struck a steel angle iron protruding from a gondola car on another Norfolk Southern freight train” in Bessemer, Ala., the safety board said. The third fatal accident was in Cleveland on Tuesday.

The investigation will focus on Norfolk Southern and its “safety culture,” the safety board said. The last time it opened a special investigation of a railroad’s safety practices was nearly a decade ago when it looked into Metro-North Railroad, a commuter rail system that links New York City with its northern suburbs.

“Given the number and significance of recent Norfolk Southern accidents, the N.T.S.B. also urges the company to take immediate action today to review and assess its safety practices, with the input of employees and others, and implement necessary changes to improve safety,” the board said in a statement.

The Federal Railroad Administration, the country’s primary rail safety regulator, later announced a 60-day safety assessment of Norfolk Southern. Its review will include looking into protections for employees working in the rail industry, procedures related to all wayside defect detectors and measures to prevent employee fatigue, the agency said.

In a statement, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said, “After a series of derailments and the death of one of its workers, we are initiating this further supplemental safety review of Norfolk Southern, while also calling on Norfolk Southern to act urgently to improve its focus on safety so the company can begin earning back the trust of the public and its employees.”

Norfolk Southern’s accident rate increased over the past four years, according to a recent company presentation. Alan H. Shaw, the chief executive, has been in that post for less than a year, taking over from James A. Squires. Mr. Shaw previously held various positions in the company, including chief marketing officer, after joining it in 1994.

In a statement, he identified the worker killed on Tuesday as Louis Shuster, a conductor from Broadview Heights, Ohio, who was struck by a dump truck as his train moved through a crossing. The cause of the crash was unclear, Mr. Shaw said.

“Moving forward, we are going to rebuild our safety culture from the ground up,” his statement said. “We are going to invest more in safety. This is not who we are, it is not acceptable, and it will not continue.”

As they assess Norfolk Southern’s safety record, federal agencies are taking a close look at the circumstances that led to derailments, which are often caused when wheel bearings get too hot.

Investigators have said they are looking at whether Norfolk Southern had enough hot bearing detectors alongside the track leading to East Palestine. A bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate last week would require such detectors every 10 miles on track that is used to transport hazardous cargo, which would force railroads to install many more than they have now.

How Norfolk Southern responded to problems with bearings is under scrutiny in two derailments that occurred last year and that the Federal Railroad Administration detailed in a safety advisory last week.

In one of the derailments, in July, a rail car was attached to a train after the company received warnings that its bearing was overheating on an earlier trip from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Macon, Ga. The bearing later critically overheated, and a camera on a police car showed the rail car being dragged over a crossing just before the train derailed in Warner Robins, Ga., according to the railroad agency.

Before the other derailment, in October in Sandusky, Ohio, the crew stopped the train and noticed smoke coming from a bearing. An electrician who performed an inspection reported that the bearing had cooled by the time he reached the train. The crew asked the car to be removed but was directed to move the train with the car attached. After traveling another seven miles, the car derailed, the railroad agency said, leading to power outages for 1,200 residents.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of Metro-North was prompted by five crashes between May 2013 and March 2014 that left six people dead. The board concluded that railroad did not properly investigate crashes, ignored known deficiencies and didn’t use a program it had in place to safely manage its employees and operations. The board, which investigates crashes and makes recommendations but does not issue rules, also criticized the Federal Railroad Administration.

The big freight railroad companies have become much more profitable in recent years by keeping costs in check and making their operations more efficient. But rail union leaders and some lawmakers said the companies had cut too many workers and were not spending enough on safety.

“We’ve been increasing our safety spend,” Norfolk Southern’s chief financial officer, Mark R. George, said at an investor conference last month after the East Palestine accident. “And I would imagine we will continue to increase our safety spend.”