Norfolk Southern railroad has released a plan to improve its monitoring of bearings inside the wheels of rolling train cars, saying that approach could help the company to prevent future derailments such as the one that spilled toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, last month.
Under its plan, the company would install more sensors along rail lines to scan the temperature of wheel bearings as train cars roll past. It would also work with manufacturers to pilot next-generation hot bearing detectors, and would accelerate its deployment of acoustic bearing detectors, which also act as early warning systems to detect excess vibration inside the axle.
The Atlanta-based company drafted its six-point safety plan in response to a bipartisan bill in Congress that would require more stringent rail safety standards across the industry, and to a report by federal investigators that identified failed bearings as a possible cause of the recent wreck. Those bearings were cited in the preliminary findings of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)’s inspection of the February 3 accident, when some 50 cars from a nearly two-mile long freight train came off the rails and caught fire along the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.
According to Norfolk Southern, the NTSB's preliminary report found that its train was running below the track’s speed limit, but suffered an overheated axle on car number 23, which was carrying plastic pellets. The impact of the ensuing crash was then compounded in the fire that followed when aluminum covers over the pressure relief valves on three of the five tank cars carrying vinyl chloride melted.
Norfolk Southern has come under increasing pressure both to clean up the chemicals released in that incident and to make changes to prevent future accidents. That pressure increased further over the weekend, after a second Norfolk Southern freight derailed in nearby Springfield, Ohio, about 230 miles away. The company has not yet indicated a cause for that latest wreck.
The wheel bearing monitoring plan follows another safety initiative announced last week, when Norfolk Southern said it planned to join the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)'s Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS). That system provides a means for railroad employees to confidentially report any safety problems they witness.
According to the company, joining that federal program will complement a similar program that Norfolk Southern already runs within the company, likewise encouraging employees to report issues so that its internal safety officers can respond. However, joining the federal reporting system will open those reports up to independent inspectors.
Under the FRA program, rail workers can file their safety concerns through a third-party federal agency—the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)—that acts as neutral party to mediate between the railroad companies and the regulators that police them. According to the FRA, “C3RS provides a safe environment for employees to report unsafe events and conditions and employees receive protection from discipline and FRA enforcement. In addition, railroads receive protection from FRA enforcement for events reported within C3RS.”