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Ohio derailment may cause delays on Norfolk Southern’s northern network

Norfolk Southern’s lanes linking the Northeast with markets in the Midwest could face significant disruptions for some time as the railroad and public officials and investigators clear the site where a train derailment occurred Friday evening in Ohio near the Pennsylvania border.

In an intermodal service update, NS (NYSE: NSC) told customers that there is no estimate for when service might return to the route where the derailment occurred. The railroad is seeking alternate routes to minimize shipment and availability delays in the interim, it said on its website.

Availability delays of at least 24 hours could occur on the following lanes: between Chicago and the Northeast; the Port of New York and New Jersey and Cleveland/Detroit/Ohio Valley; Kansas City, Missouri, and St. Louis and the Northeast.

In a separate service update from Monday, NS said customers should expect delays of at least 24 hours between Cleveland and the Northeast via Pittsburgh.

Cleanup at the site may be complex due to the nature of the derailment. Investigators are just starting to look at possible causes of the crash.

On Friday at 8:55 p.m. EST, an NS train originating from Madison, Illinois, was en route to Conway, Pennsylvania, when it derailed at East Palestine, Ohio, near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. The train, which consisted of 141 loaded cars, nine empties and three locomotives, included 20 rail cars carrying hazardous materials. Of those 20, 10 derailed, and five of those 10 carried vinyl chloride, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, which arrived at the scene on Saturday.

No injuries were reported, but the derailment blocked NS’ two main tracks.

The derailed cars and an associated blaze prompted local officials to evacuate residents living within a 1-by-2-mile area of the derailment, which included communities in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Vinyl chloride is an unstable material that can cause toxic fumes and create deadly shrapnel should any of the rail cars explode, officials said. 

The evacuation order remains in place on Wednesday as NS as well as state and federal officials with the Environmental Protection Agency continue to monitor air and water quality.

Officials also reported that NS successfully executed a controlled release of vinyl chloride from the rail cars on Monday afternoon, and fires on the five rail cars carrying vinyl chloride have been extinguished. Four out of five rail cars have also been excavated from the site and will be staged for NTSB.

This photo taken with a drone shows portions of a Norfolk Southern train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio. Rail cars were still on fire at mid-day Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

NTSB board member Michael Graham said Saturday during a press conference that his team will gather perishable evidence and interview the train’s crew, while others from NS, EPA, the Federal Railroad Administration and the SMART union will also be part of the investigation and cleanup. SMART stands for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers.

“This is the beginning of a long process. We will not jump to any conclusions,” Graham said. A preliminary report will come out in four to six weeks, while a full investigation can last 18-24 months, he said.

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