NTSB to investigate Norfolk Southern over accidents and ‘safety culture’

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AKRON, Ohio — The National Transportation Board is opening a special investigation Tuesday into the safety practices of one of the nation’s largest railroad corporations following several accidents, including last month’s toxic train derailment and the death of a train conductor.

Citing “the number and significance of recent Norfolk Southern accidents,” the NTSB said on Tuesday it will begin a broad look into Norfolk Southern’s “organization and safety culture.” The investigation will be the first of its kind within the rail industry since 2014.

The NTSB said it has deployed investigative teams to five significant accidents involving Norfolk Southern since December 2021. Three of the incidents were in Ohio in just over one month this year.

The board also urged the company to take immediate action to review and assess its safety practices, with the input of employees and others, and implement necessary changes to improve safety. 

The announcement comes the day after NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said a final report on the East Palestine, Ohio, derailment and hazardous materials spill could take more than a year to complete. Homendy has previously said the East Palestine derailment was “no accident” and that it was “100% preventable.”

EAST PALESTINE DERAILMENT: Headaches, coughing, burning of the skin: Symptoms Ohio residents have experienced after toxic train derailment

LAWMAKERS CALL FOR TRAIN SAFETY: Second Norfolk Southern train derailment in Ohio shines congressional spotlight on rail industry

A worker keeps watch near the East Taggert Street railroad crossing as cleanup from a Norfolk Southern derailment continues on Tuesday, March 7, 2023 in East Palestine.

Five significant accidents involving Norfolk Southern

The NTSB said it is concerned that several organizational factors may be involved in the accidents, including safety culture. In just over one year, the agency has sent investigative teams to five significant accidents:

  • On Dec. 8, 2021, an employee for National Salvage and Service Corp. assigned to work with a Norfolk Southern team replacing track was killed when the operator of a spike machine reversed direction and struck the employee in Reed, Pennsylvania. 
  • A Norfolk Southern trainee conductor was killed on Dec. 13, 2022,  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 that was stopped on an adjacent track in Bessemer, Alabama. 
  • On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine. The derailment resulted in a significant fire and hazardous materials release. 
  • A 2.55-mile-long Norfolk Southern freight train derailed near Springfield, Ohio, on March 4.
  • On March 7, a Norfolk Southern employee was killed during a train movement in Cleveland.

As part of the special investigation, the NTSB said it will also review the Oct. 28 Norfolk Southern derailment in Sandusky. Another Norfolk Southern train derailed in Ravenna Township in Portage County on Oct. 2.

MORE: Federal investigators have new concerns about equipment in East Palestine train derailment

Norfolk Southern’s response

The NTSB investigation follows Norfolk Southern’s announcement on Monday that it would add more sensors along railroad tracks to spot overheating bearings and move to upgrade safety measures on its system.

In the Feb. 3 East Palestine incident, the NTSB said it appears a bearing in a rail car failed, causing a derailment that involved cars containing vinyl chloride, a flammable chemical used as a precursor to many plastic products. An evacuation order was issued for the area around the derailment site, and the chemicals were released from the cars into a trench, where they were burnt off.

Following the death of a train conductor Tuesday, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw pledged to hold companywide safety briefings on Wednesday — one day ahead of when he is scheduled to testify in Congress at a hearing on the East Palestine derailment.

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

Mar 7, 2023; Columbus, OH, United States; State Rep. Monica Robb Blasdel (left) of Columbiana County and State Rep. Lauren McNally of Youngstown speak in support of an act that would require companies transporting hazardous chemicals on rail lines to submit that information to the areas they are traveling through by rail. Mandatory Credit: Brooke LaValley/Columbus Dispatch

Contributing: The Associated Press