OMAHA, Neb. — A minor coal train derailment in Virginia in early July prompted Norfolk Southern to rethink the way it responds to problems with overheating bearings, but it's not clear why the railroad didn't make similar changes months earlier after an overheating bearing caused the fiery Ohio derailment that prompted nationwide concerns about rail safety.
The National Transportation Safety Board said the Atlanta-based railroad changed its rules a day after the July 6 derailment to take a much more cautious approach when a hot bearing is found. After the derailment, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union was critical of Norfolk Southern's response because dispatchers told the crew to move the train 13 miles to a siding down the track even after the crew confirmed a bearing on one of the railcars was overheating, and that's when it derailed.
The Virginia derailment that happened coming down out of the Appalachian Mountains near Elliston was relatively minor, with only 19 cars coming off the tracks and none of the coal spilling. The situation in East Palestine, Ohio, was much different with hazardous chemicals spilling from ruptured tank cars and officials deciding to blow open five other tank cars filled with vinyl chloride because they feared they might explode. The cleanup from that Feb. 3 derailment is ongoing, and area residents worry about the possibility of lingering health effects.
Unlike in the East Palestine derailment, the Virginia train crew had enough time to stop the train safely after a trackside detector set off an alarm about the overheating bearing. The conductor walked back and confirmed the problem with a wax stick that's designed to melt anytime the temperature is above 169 degrees Fahrenheit. He also noticed grease leaking from one of the axle bearings, according to the NTSB's preliminary report.
At the time the Virginia train derailed it was moving 25 mph — well below the 40 mph speed limit for the area but not slow enough to prevent the derailment.
The new rules Norfolk Southern issued the following day said that in a situation like that when any damage is noticed on a hot bearing, the railroad will send out a mechanical inspector to look at a car before it is moved. And anytime a car with an overheated bearing is moved, the train will move no faster than 10 mph with the crew stopping at least every three miles to reinspect the bearing.
Norfolk Southern spokesman Connor Spielmaker said the changes were made as part of the railroad's effort to become "the gold standard for safety in the railroad industry" but he didn't address why these changes weren't made after the East Palestine derailment.
"We are not going to stop until we complete the culture, process, and technology changes required to make accidents like this a thing of the past," Spielmaker said.
The railroad has announced a number of efforts to improve safety since February including an effort to work with its unions and hiring an outside consultant. Norfolk Southern's CEO Alan Shaw emphasized those steps while testifying before Congress and apologizing for the Ohio derailment.
Lawmakers are considering imposing a package of reforms on the rail industry. And the railroads themselves have announced several efforts to improve safety including installing about 1,000 more trackside detectors nationwide to help spot mechanical problems before they can cause derailments.
Even with the recent safety concerns, railroads are still regarded as the safest way to transport goods across land, but the Ohio derailment illustrates that even one derailment involving hazardous chemicals can be disastrous.