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Ohio train derailment spurs rail safety advisory on hot box detectors

The Federal Railroad Administration has put out a safety advisory urging the railroads to look at their policies and procedures for using and maintaining hot bearing wayside detectors, also known as hot box detectors.

Hot box detectors (HBDs) gauge the temperature of the wheel bearings of passing trains. Federal investigators are looking at how an overheated bearing might have contributed or led to the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) train in East Palestine, Ohio. 

“Preliminary investigation of recent train derailments indicates the cause of, or contributing factor to, the incidents was a mechanical failure, specifically burnt journal bearings,” FRA’s safety advisory said. “Accordingly, FRA is issuing this Safety Advisory to make recommendations to enhance the mechanical reliability of rolling stock and the safety of railroad operations.”  

Tuesday’s safety advisory, which has been submitted for publication to the Federal Register, calls for the railroads to do the following: 

  • Use HBD data to evaluate the thresholds for inspections.
  • As part of the inspection process, factor in real-time trend analyses of HBD data.
  • Ensure that those who calibrate, inspect and maintain HBDs are properly trained and qualified.
  • Use HBD alerts when inspecting rolling stock.
  • Seek to improve the safety culture of the organization, particularly when it comes to operational decisions based on HBD data.

FRA noted that burnt journal bearings may have been the cause of at least five derailments since 2021, including three that involved NS. The two other derailments involved Kansas City Southern.

In all those situations, HBDs were able to flag a suspect bearing, but either the crews were not able to act in time to prevent the derailment or they were directed to keep the train going. 

“These investigations into each of these accidents are ongoing, but they demonstrate not only the potential catastrophic consequences of a train derailment involving hazardous materials, but also the importance of implementing appropriate standards, processes, and procedures governing the use of HBDs,” FRA said.

FRA noted the rail industry’s use of wayside detectors to help identify defects in rail equipment and rail infrastructure, including the use of wheel impact load detectors. A 2015 FRA safety advisory recommended that the railroads install and use these types of detectors along routes that might have more traffic of high-hazard flammable trains or high-hazard flammable unit trains. 

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