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Norfolk Southern's 'defect detectors' picked up problems before crash

WSYX – Columbus 2/24/2023 Darrel Rowland

Today's federal report on the East Palestine train derailment highlights those wayside defect detectors along rail lines that only 6 On Your Side showed you Wednesday night.

But what the National Transportation Safety Board document contains - and what it left out – are troubling.

You’ve heard of six degrees of separation? It was 12 degrees that may have prevented a Norfolk Southern crew from safely stopping the train miles from where it derailed in eastern Ohio.

ALSO | Read more on the NTSB report, Norfolk Southern's response

Thirty miles west of East Palestine, near Sebring, the wayside defect detectors picked up the overheating wheel bearing that the NTSB suspects caused the derailment. 

Another detector in Salem, about 20 miles from the crash site, showed the bearing’s temperature had skyrocketed by 68 degrees in just those 10 miles.

By then, the bearing’s temperature was 103 degrees hotter than the surrounding air. But here’s the catch: Norfolk Southern’s standards don’t call for the train to be stopped and inspected until the bearing reaches at least 115 degrees above the outside temperature – a mere 12 degrees hotter than the reading.

But the time the next reading in East Palestine showed the bearing a stunning 253 degrees above the air temperature, the crew attempted to stop the train - but it was too late.

Still, the crew apparently adhered to company guidelines.

"We have no evidence that the crew did anything wrong," NTSB Board Chair Jennifer Homendy said.

In a statement, Norfolk Southern said the preliminary findings show that the three-person crew operated the train under company guidelines and below the speed limit, and the wayside defect detectors operated as designed. 

The temperature thresholds are among the lowest in the rail industry, the statement said.

© Provided by WSYX – Columbus

Norfolk and Southern told WSYX that it has invested more than $200 million for nearly 1,000 "hot bearing" detectors, generating more than 2 billion readings each year. 

When something abnormal is detected, a warning message is sent to the train so, if necessary, immediate action may be taken, including stopping the train for repairs right away.

Still, federal investigators will probe how the railroad uses those trackside defect detectors – including whether the company’s criteria on when a train must be stopped for repairs is adequate.

"In the course of the investigation we will also look at Norfolk Southern's use of wayside defect detectors," Homendy said. "We are going to look at the spacing of those detectors, whether information is or should be monitored in real time with data trending from a control center. And we will look at the temperature thresholds which indicate immediate action once an overheated bearing is detected."

Those little-noticed sensors may not look like much, but a system of triangle-shaped devices along railroad tracks nationwide may hold the key to the eastern Ohio Palestine derailment – and to preventing others like it.

When a train rolls through these detectors, they can spot an overheated wheel bearing, a shift in load, or even if something is being dragged underneath the train. The detectors are scattered on railways throughout the nation, ranging from roughly 10 miles apart to as much as 30.

But no public agency has a list of where they are or what data they collect; they are owned by the railroads.

© Provided by WSYX – Columbus

What the NTSB report left out on the East Palestine derailment

But here’s the part the report didn’t address: Leaders of Ohio railroad unions say even if the rail-side sensors do say “stop,” sometimes that alarm is ignored.

Daniel Banks, a conductor and union official said, "If it proves convenient, they’ll sometimes have a train going in the opposite direction give us a visual inspection going 50 miles per hour when we’re crossing each other."

It wasn’t like that just a few years ago, before railroads began a new scheduling system to save money, says Clyde Whitaker, state director for the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail Transportation union.

"When a defect detector sounded an alarm that train would be required to stop and inspect the alleged defect. No exceptions whatsoever," he told the House Finance Committee earlier this week. This should be the standard now. At the end of the day railroads need to be held responsible. When a defect detector alert is sent to a wayside desk, the crew should be notified of a car trending hot."

Instead, he said, all too often railroad companies "roll the dice They take a chance on getting the train to destination in order to save a buck."

© Provided by WSYX – Columbus

Report: Railroad company ignored safety warning in earlier Ohio derailment

The nonprofit news organization Pro Publica is reporting that the company's rules for its Wayside Detector Help Desk allow decision-makers to ignore information from the defect detectors. 

Workers on the desk can tell crews to disregard an alert when “information is available confirming it is safe to proceed” and to continue no faster than 30 miles per hour to the next track-side sensor.

Norfolk Southern disregarded a similar mechanical problem on another train that months earlier jumped the tracks in Ohio, Pro Publica was told by Whitaker.

When a mechanic could not determine what was causing a wheel to heat up on an engine the train was towing on the way to Cleveland last October, a Norfolk Southern dispatcher told the crew to resume its journey rather than remove the engine to fix it, the union leader said.

A few miles later, the train derailed, spilling thousands of gallons of molten paraffin wax in the city of Sandusky.

© Provided by WSYX – Columbus

Railroad operators are 'playing the odds' with safety of crew, cargo and communities, union leader says

John Esterly, a leader of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, told the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday: “Unfortunately, in the absence of regulation, there’s no cause for the railroad to comply with any of the information that these defect detectors provide.

“So even if a defect is detected there’s no regulation that says you must stop and inspect that car.”

In a separate committee hearing Tuesday, he explained it this way:

“Think of them like a service engine soon light in your car," Esterly said. "If it comes on, you might immediately see a mechanic to see what the issue is. Or, you might choose to finish your trip.

“The railroads are similarly not bound to any action if a defect is detected in a train. They may opt to immediately stop the train and inspect the issue, or they may choose to complete the trip – playing the odds with their cargo and crew, but more importantly with the safety of the communities that these trains pass through.”

That’s why Esterly and several Ohio legislators are trying to pass a proposal that would allow the state to develop new requirements for actions a railroad must take when a wayside detector shows a potential problem.

The plan is part of the sprawling two-year state transportation budget bill.

But such state oversight faces a major hurdle: Railroad lobbyists say they can be regulated only by the federal government.

Still, numerous state lawmakers are asking questions about what they can do to tighten rules within Ohio to lessen the chances something like this ever happens again.

Senate President Matt Huffman said the upper chamber likely will hold a hearing next week.

WSYX reporter Haley Nelson contributed to this story.

Caption: WSYX

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