September 16, 2023

Norfolk Southern to create executive role as part of safety revamp

Norfolk Southern plans to create an executive role focused on field engagement in response to the initial findings of an independent consultancy that NS hired to scrutinize the eastern U.S. Class I railroad’s safety culture.

That role “will work across organizational boundaries, engaging our front-line railroaders for ideas on how to make Norfolk Southern better, identifying further opportunities to enhance working conditions for our colleagues in the field, and strengthening our safety and service culture,” said NS President and CEO Alan Shaw in a Thursday letter to employees about the findings from Atkins Nuclear Secured (ANS).

NS (NYSE: NSC) retained ANS to examine the railroad’s safety practices following the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio. Several days after the derailment, NS and state and local officials decided to vent a tank car carrying vinyl chloride over concern that the car was in danger of exploding.

The derailment, which put NS and the freight rail industry in the nation’s hot seat, also prompted federal regulators and the unions to question how precision scheduled railroading (PSR) might have influenced safety at NS and other railroads. PSR is a tool that the railroads use to streamline operations and cut costs.

ANS’ report, which NS said was released just at the start of a multiyear process to enhance the railroad’s safety culture and operations, listed four areas where NS might seek to improve. A safety implementation task force will work with ANS on implementing the recommendations. 

“Moving forward on building an industry-leading, safety-first operation requires everyone across our organization — from management to the craft employees who comprise the backbone of the company — to work together toward a common mission. We will succeed by working collaboratively, deliberately, and with urgency,” Shaw said. 

The report listed 11 recommendations where there were “key opportunities for improvement,” as well as seven other areas of potential improvement.

The full list of recommendations is available here.

Shaw summarized the recommendations into an outline with four main points: strengthen collaboration with local leaders and welcome feedback that would create innovative solutions;  enhance post-incident improvement policies by strengthening NS’ fact-finding processes and root cause analysis, then deploying corrective actions accordingly; invest in locations and reporting facilities as a way to improve morale and workplace pride; and expand NS’ field assessment team in order to teach and develop field leaders as they seek to strengthen and reinforce employee safety behaviors.

NS seeks to develop its safety implementation plan by October, and it expects to consult with ANS on the implementation of this plan for the next two to three years.

ANS’ report echoes some of the observations that the Federal Railroad Administration made last month when the agency released its review of NS’ safety practices. Keeping communication lines open, fostering mutual trust between the company and employees, ensuring adequate training and resources, and developing a more proactive safety culture were some of FRA’s recommendations.

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The second annual F3: Future of Freight Festival will be held in Chattanooga, “The Scenic City,” this November. F3 combines innovation and entertainment — featuring live demos, industry experts discussing freight market trends for 2024, afternoon networking events, and Grammy Award-winning musicians performing in the evenings amidst the cool Appalachian fall weather.

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