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Trade groups, unions differ in responses to NTSB report on NS derailment

Responding to the preliminary report and comments from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) about the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train near East Palestine, Ohio, rail trade groups and unions agreed it’s important not to spread misinformation.

However, there appear to be differences over what the next steps should be, particularly as it pertains to the pace of potential reforms. Statements by the parties illustrate how the discussion surrounding rail safety could shape up in the coming months and years.

NTSB released a preliminary report on the train derailment early Thursday, and remarks Thursday afternoon by NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy indicate that the agency expects the rail industry and its stakeholders not only to closely follow the investigation but also to be ready to adopt changes in practices as the investigation unfurls.

The parties involved in NTSB’s investigation “help us gather the facts around investigations. There’s an advantage to that for them, too. They get the facts when we get the facts. And they can take immediate action to improve safety,” Homendy said of the parties, which include, beyond NTSB and NS, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration, Ohio State Highway Patrol, the Village of East Palestine, rail car lessors Trinity Industries Leasing (NYSE: TRN) and GATX (NYSE: GATX), and four unions — Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), and International Association of Fire Fighters.​

NS: Railroad to develop informed safety practices

Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) will inspect all of the nearly 1,000 wayside heat detectors on its system “out of an abundance of caution,” according to a Thursday statement. These inspections will be on top of the regular inspections that occur every 30 days.

The railroad noted that the temperature thresholds for its hot bearing detectors to trigger an alarm if the bearing gets too hot are “among the lowest in the country.”

NS reiterated that it will continue to support NTSB’s investigation and that the preliminary report supports some facts about NS’ operations that show that NS was acting properly. Among them are that the crew operated the train within company rules, the train was operating below speed limit and the wayside heat detectors were operating as designed. 

NS said it shares Homendy’s frustration about misinformation.

“We and the rail industry need to learn as much as we can from this event. Norfolk Southern will develop practices and invest in technologies that could help prevent an incident like this in the future. We will also work with the owners of the rail cars on the integrity and safety of the equipment we use,” NS said.

Association of American Railroads: Group urges ‘unimpeded’ investigation

The head of the Association of American Railroads (AAR) said NTSB’s investigation must continue “unimpeded by politics and speculation” so that the agency can offer recommendations that could help prevent future accidents.

AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies also said the railroads, as well as other stakeholders, will need to focus on restoring the public trust. To do so, the industry will need opportunities to interpret and respond to NTSB’s findings.

“No community should ever face the events of February 3rd. This is why railroads are steadfastly committed to solutions-oriented steps that directly address the cause of the accident and could prevent a similar accident from occurring elsewhere,” Jefferies said.

He continued, “All stakeholders — railroads along with federal, state and local officials — must work to restore the public’s trust in the safety and security of our communities. We can only do that by letting the facts drive the post-accident response. At this time, the focus must be on the most pressing issue at hand — ensuring the community of East Palestine has all the support they need as it moves forward.”

Railway Supply Institute: Manufacturers poised to respond to recommendations

The Railway Supply Institute, a trade group representing rail car manufacturers and lessors as well as rail equipment manufacturers, also cautioned against offering safety recommendations that might deviate from NTSB’s findings.

The NTSB “is actively fulfilling its role of conducting an independent accident investigation and, where appropriate, will advocate for safety enhancements. The RSI and its members prioritize safety above all else, but also believe that hastily recommended policy solutions are premature until the NTSB has completed its investigation of the causal and root factors in this incident,” the group said. 

“RSI looks forward to lending its technical expertise on railcar design and integrity to members of the NTSB, and stands ready to be part of discussions around proposed solutions when the report is completed.”

BLET: Industry should not hinder safety regulations

While BLET agreed with NTSB’s opposition to speculating on the causes of the derailment, the discussion around rail safety should not ignore some observations about how the rail industry operates today, according to BLET National President Eddie Hall. 

Hall reiterated the position that the railroads should have train crews of two or more members because having experienced engineers and conductors on the NS train likely helped the situation.

“If this had been a train operated by one crew member, it may have taken longer to react to the fire caused by the failure of the bearings, axles and other mechanical items. It’s not unusual for things to go wrong on trains and sometimes many things. This is why it is important to have experienced engineers and conductors on board,” Hall said.

He also said the railroads and railroad trade groups have spent significant time and money lobbying to slow the implementation of federal safety regulations or even eliminate them.

“In the absence of federal requirements, it’s important to note that the railroads will continue to self-regulate. Norfolk Southern Railway freight train 32N that derailed in East Palestine was nearly two miles in length. … The railroads have opposed any government regulation on train length; they have sought waivers to eliminate having trained inspectors monitor rail cars; and they have pushed back on the Train Crew Staffing Rule.”

Trade groups’ statements calling for the industry to respond to NTSB regulations serve more as an opportunity for the railroads to buy time, Hall continued.

“The AAR and the railroads are pushing back against attempts to learn from this derailment. They are hiding behind the NTSB process and suggesting that we should wait for the final report, which is probably a year away from being issued,” Hall said. “There’s growing public awareness of irresponsible behavior by the railroads. Now is the time to toughen regulations on America’s railroads to keep both railroad workers and the communities our members operate through safe.”

Railroad Workers United: Railroads must quickly boost safety

Railroad Workers United (RWU), an interunion group consisting of craft employees, also urged the railroads to swiftly adopt changes that would address shortfalls in rail safety. The group urged Congress and regulatory agencies to take steps to ensure the railroads follow through. 

“RWU demands immediate action by government regulatory agencies and Congress to rein in Class One railroads. This action must ensure sufficient staffing to do the job properly, efficiently, and safely, with all trains operating with a minimum of a two-person crew. Train length and weight must be capped at a reasonable level to mitigate the increased likelihood of breakdowns, train separations, and derailments,” RWU said Friday. “Adequate and proper maintenance and inspections of locomotives and rail cars, tracks and signals, wayside detectors, and other infrastructure must be implemented. Ample training and time off without the harassment of draconian attendance policies must also be standardized.”

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