June 23, 2023

Witness testifies freight car involved in NS train derailment was not inspected


Jason Cox, national representative of the Transportation Communications Union, testified at the National Transportation Safety Board’s hearing Friday on the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that a suspect freight car had not been inspected as it traveled through the state on Feb. 3. 

A wheel bearing on that freight car is believed to have caused the derailment. Cox said it was his understanding that no inspection had been performed on the car as it went into Decatur, Illinois, and then traveled through the Ohio cities of Toledo, Cleveland and Bellevue. 

“There are qualified mechanical inspectors at all these points, and they were not allowed to inspect this car at any of those locations,” Cox said.

‘The final yes was given by me’

NTSB’s hearing, conducted Thursday and Friday in East Palestine, focused on four main areas: ​hazard communications and emergency responder preparedness for the initial emergency response; circumstances that led to the decision to vent and burn five vinyl chloride tank cars; freight car bearing failure modes and wayside detection systems; and tank car derailment damage, crashworthiness and hazardous materials package information.

According to one of the reports presented, an eastbound, general merchandise NS train experienced a derailment at about 8:54 p.m. Feb. 3. Thirty-eight rail cars derailed and a fire ensued, damaging an additional 12 cars. No fatalities or injuries were reported, although there was a 1-mile evacuation zone due to the release of hazardous materials. 

The decision to vent and burn the vinyl chloride tank cars occurred on Feb. 6 because of concerns that one of the cars could pose an explosion hazard because the inside temperature was still rising, according to NTSB’s initial report on the incident.

The first day of the hearing included discussions about communications that occurred between various emergency responders and NS, as well as the circumstances and decisions that led up to NS conducting the controlled burn of the tank cars containing vinyl chloride.

Local responders, NS and the railroad’s contractors eventually reached a consensus to conduct the controlled burn and it was East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick who made the final call. He had 13 minutes to decide when conditions — among them, weather factors and the transition from day to night — proved favorable.

“The final yes was given by me based on there were no other options,” Drabick testified at the NTSB hearing.

Robert Wood, NS systems manager for hazardous materials, said the railroad backed that decision. Other options after conducting a damage assessment, such as rerouting, weren’t possible because of mechanical damage and fire damage to the cars.  

“The very last alternative was vent and burn. When you get to that point, there are no other options. And that was the case here,” Wood said. 

Rail union warns of ‘public safety hazard’

Union officials are using the hearing as an opportunity to call for labor-supported provisions related to operations, such as train crew sizes with more than two people and limiting the length of trains. 

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) said in a Friday news release that while its representatives at the hearing are limited about what they can say about the East Palestine derailment until NTSB issues its final report, the union can speak broadly about rail safety improvements. 

“It’s not unusual for things to go wrong on trains, sometimes many things,” said BLET National President Eddie Hall in the release. “It is important to have experienced locomotive engineers and train conductors onboard, especially long trains, that routinely carry hazardous materials. But railroad CEOs have pushed for having only one person on the train. We even have some railroads using remotely-operated trains in urban centers without a locomotive engineer onboard. This is a serious mistake and a public safety hazard.”

Longer trains can put further strain on equipment, BLET said.

Visual inspections of rail cars

A major issue that arose during the two-day hearing was the frequency of visual inspections of freight cars, as well as how exhaustive the inspections should be.

Cox said of the two kinds of rail car inspections that are supposed to occur by law, the inspection that’s meant to serve only as a stopgap to get a freight car to an inspection point is being used more frequently. 

The two types of inspections consist one performed by a carman that assesses the total health of a freight car and the other, which is less extensive and can be conducted by a train crew member, according to Cox. 

“Unfortunately, in today’s rail structure, the railroads have gotten larger, there are less railroads and there are less interchange points. Therefore, the [less extensive inspection] has become more and more the primary inspection on these cars instead of the detailed inspection … by the qualified mechanical inspector,” he said.

The Railway Safety Act, the bill currently in the Senate, addresses the issue of the two inspection types and “would fix a lot of these oversights,” Cox said, noting that train crews should get more alerts about the train in real time and not from a central office.

Other hearing witnesses said that visual inspections of bearings to detect defects might be limited and so technology is needed to ensure a bearing’s health.

“The bearings are sealed components. I’m not saying a carman can never detect an issue with a bearing. But that’s not typically going to be the case,” said Michael Rush, senior vice president of safety and operations for the Association of American Railroads. “That’s why you need bearing detectors because the visual inspection cannot be relied on or typically will not reveal a problem with a bearing.”

Handling data from wayside detectors

Another question was how to utilize the data received from wayside detectors to prevent accidents. Wayside detectors can alert a train in the field and serve as a reactive device; the data from wayside detectors can also be used in trending analysis, which is more proactive and predictive, according to Jared Hopewell, assistant vice president for communications and signals for NS. The trending analysis involves tracking cars as they travel across a rail network.

A multi-railroad began in the late 2000s to develop a trending analysis system, and the standards for that system are set by the industry and AAR, with the degree of implementation depending on the railroad, according to Hopewell.

But “I feel that using the measuring stick of how the systems have performed in terms of just a result-based analysis on how the bearing-related events have declined over the past couple of decades of their implementation — I think that speaks most to us right now,” Hopewell said. “Those numbers have come down with the deployment of detectors that have become more prevalent. … So at this point, we feel that we have an effective system. But obviously, we’re going to continue our efforts to further that, that development and improvement.”

The question about whether the back office has enough resources to handle the various alerts from the wayside detectors also came up. According to one of the questioners at the hearing, the supervisor for the advanced train controller had been requesting more staffing and that increasing the number of hotbox detectors could also result in an increased workload. 

In response, Hopewell said, “We have actually taken steps to add resources to that desk. First off, to make sure that their capacity — their bandwidth — is not going to be anything that would present an issue in the current environment. And also due to the fact that our deployment of additional detectors and technologies we anticipate is going to present further importance and workload on that desk. So we’re taking steps proactively to add those resources and have them trained up and ready for it.”

Rush added that he was in touch with another Class I railroad, which said that its back office generally receives two to three reports per shift that require analyzing the alerts from wayside detectors.

Challenges in setting thresholds for wayside detectors

But the issue with analyzing the alerts from wayside detectors is that it’s an art and not just science, according to Rush. If the alert thresholds are set too low for the wayside detectors, it could also result in a lot of false stops and clog the network because the threshold alert authorizes putting a car out of service to make repairs. This is where experience comes into play, he said. 

“Having said that, as I think some people in the room are aware, we have been taking a look at those thresholds. And we’ll continue to look at those thresholds,” Rush said. “It’s an ongoing exercise in terms of taking experience into account. But really, that’s what it comes down to: [It] is taking your experience in terms of what thresholds are appropriate for getting those defective bearings off the system, but at the same time, not constantly stopping trains.”

Another question is the deployment frequency of the different types of wayside detectors and union inspectors’ experiences with different detector types.

“In my experience, acoustic bearing detectors are a better predictor of bearing failures than hotbox detectors,” said Constantine Tarawneh with the University Transportation Center for Railway Safety at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. If thresholds are set too low, it can result in many stoppages and delays, he said.

“In our experience, having onboard sensors that measure vibration and continuously monitor a bearing can give you a much better early warning. In some of the cases I showed, we basically can detect the onset of bearing defects within less than half an inch square area with a vibration sensor, tracking it with time until you reach a certain threshold,” Tarawneh said. “The worse the defect, the louder and the higher the vibration, [the more] you can track. … And so that at least gives the railroads a little bit ahead advance notice that they can schedule maintenance.”

Another layer to stack upon the challenges associated with bearing inspections is trying to create more uniform standards for the inspections of wheels and bearings, in part because the stress that a wheel bearing might undergo as part of unit train might be different than the stress it receives as being part of a mixed freight train, according to Hans Iwand, principal and vice president at ESi Engineering Systems. 

The wheels operating on a unit train “will have a different expected life due to wear than, for instance, the same-sized bearing and wheel that’s operating under a tank car or a hopper car that is used for storage of media or used as a temporary storage device,” Iwand said.

“So consequently, it’s quite difficult to pinpoint precisely when maintenance could or should be performed from a forecasting perspective because of this broad variation in utilization of the bearing itself,” Iwand continued.” Specifically, if you consider a unit train, 50% of the time that bearing is not going to be loaded by payload because the car is empty half of the time. However, in refrigerated cars, those units or those cars tend to be loaded in both directions so the application of load to the bearing is substantially different because the car utilization plays a role. So, unfortunately, there is no simple answer.”

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