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NTSB chair says NS train derailment was ‘100% preventable’

The Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) train could have been avoided, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board said at a press conference Thursday.

“I can tell you this much: This was 100% preventable,” Jennifer Homendy said, while also apologizing to the residents of East Palestine, Ohio, where the derailment occurred. Residents have been concerned about the area’s air and water quality because some of the derailed rail cars released vinyl chloride into the environment when NS performed a controlled venting of those cars. Vinyl chloride is a chemical substance used in plastics production.

“We call things accidents. There is no accident. Every single event that we investigate is preventable. … Know that the NTSB has one goal, and that is safety and ensuring that this never happens again,” she continued.

Preventable causes can include anything, she said: wheel bearings, tank car specifications, the actions of federal entities, the types of information available to state and local responders, and NS’ operational policies, among other potential causes.

“There are often a lot of considerations in what goes into what is preventable. There is usually far more than one thing,” Homendy said.

NTSB will be conducting an investigative field hearing in East Palestine sometime this spring, at which the board will invite parties to answer questions by the board. 

Calling such a hearing rare, Homendy said the last one by NTSB was several years ago in an investigation involving Southwest Airlines. 

More details on NTSB’s investigation

NTSB will still investigate the incident over the next several months, but the agency provided some additional details about its findings during Thursday’s press conference and in a preliminary report issued Thursday morning.

Read: NTSB issues initial findings on Norfolk Southern train derailment

Among them, the initial fire involved a hopper car carrying plastic pellets. The car’s hot axle and the plastic pellets started the fire. The ensuing derailment of 38 rail cars led to fires on 11 derailed tank cars — including five derailed DOT-105 specification tank cars — and 12 cars that did not derail.

Two wayside hot bearing detectors at a greater distance from the derailment site did not indicate temperatures that would set off an alarm alerting the train crew, but a third detector close to the site did.

NTSB has not identified any operational issues with the wayside detectors, but the agency will continue to look at them. Investigators have also not found any evidence of track defects, and the engineer was already slowing the train when the derailment occurred because the train was following another one in front of it, according to Homendy.

Causes for an overheated bearing may include fatigue cracking, water damage, mechanical damage, a loose bearing or a wheel defect.

Other issues that NTSB could examine are:

  • Whether controlled venting by NS to release the vinyl chloride inside five tank cars in danger of exploding was conducted according to Federal Railroad Administration guidance.
  • Whether some other protection should be around the placards on the tank cars. The plastic and the aluminum on the placards had melted. The placards indicate to emergency responders what is inside the tank car. 
  • NS’ inspection procedures and rail car design and maintenance practices.
  • Prior accidents involving the hopper car that had the problematic bearing.
  • The performance of DOT-111 tank cars in accidents since there were 15 DOT-111 tank cars on the train, and DOT-117 tank cars are supposed to be replacing DOT-111 tank cars.
  • NS’ use of wayside detectors and the temperature thresholds of the hot bearing detectors.
  • The spacing of hot bearing detectors, as well as their temperature warning thresholds. Spacing and thresholds vary considerably among railroads, Homendy said.

Homendy cited a 2013 report from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, which noted that wheel set roller bearings can fail catastrophically in as few as 10 to 15 miles on a train that’s traveling at track speed. As a result, stakeholders must take action to prevent that kind of failure, she said.

‘Enough with the politics’

Homendy advocated providing regional responders with advance notice of what hazardous materials might be traveling through local communities, something that was recommended in a list of action items brought forth by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg earlier this week. 

The general public “absolutely deserve[s] to know whether they live or work near a hazmat route. They also need to be aware of the hazards associated with releases, what railroads will do to prevent accidents and mitigate consequences, how to recognize and respond to an emergency, what protective action to take in the event of a hazmat release, and how to contact railroads and federal authorities regarding specific concerns, and that should also include state authorities,” Homendy said. 

But she strongly urged pundits and other interested parties to stop speculating on the cause of the incident, saying it does a disservice to NTSB’s recommendations, which come out up to two years after an incident.

“I want to be clear —  we have to make sure that [the recommendations] we’re proposing as the NTSB [are] specific to this accident. That’s our job. Our job is to determine how this happened and to issue safety recommendations to prevent this one from happening again. … This is a community that has been devastated. They deserve to know what happened.”

She continued, “[But] what happens is everybody jumps to those [conclusions], and then when we issue our final report, we get ignored. That is frustrating. So, when we issue our final recommendations, I want Norfolk Southern to act if they get one, I want FRA and PHMSA [Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration] to act if they get some. I want others to [act]. We need action on what would prevent that from happening again. That is our goal.”

When asked about former President Donald Trump visiting the site this week, dispensing bottled water and other supplies and criticizing the Biden administration’s response to the derailment, Homendy forcefully urged keeping politics out of the matter.

“Enough with the politics. I don’t understand why this has gotten so political. This is a community that is suffering. This is not about politics. This is about addressing their needs, their concerns. That’s what this should be about. So, I don’t care about the politics … . What I care about is figuring out how this happened, and what I care about and the NTSB cares about is getting to what would prevent this from reoccurring,” Homendy said.

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