Earlier this month, a Norfolk Southern train carrying dangerous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The surrounding area could be contaminated for years by toxic chemicals intentionally released from damaged train cars by the railroad company. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released a preliminary report with findings that the crew might have ignored warning signs of a potential disaster as they adhered to company policy.
The NTSB report detailed the incident moment by moment leading up to the derailment. The agency put a particular focus on the 1.76-mile-long train in question, Train 32N, passing three wayside defect detectors or hot bearing detectors (HBDs) during its highly destructive trip. The detectors measure the temperature of axle bearings on each passing train car. The preliminary report states:
Train 32N passed three HBD systems on its trip before the derailment. At MP (milepost) 79.9, the suspect bearing from the 23rd car had a recorded temperature of 38°F above ambient temperature. When train 32N passed the next HBD, at MP 69.01, the bearing’s recorded temperature was 103°F above ambient. The third HBD, at MP 49.81, recorded the suspect bearing’s temperature at 253°F above ambient.
The Norfolk Southern crew stopped the train after passing the third hot bearing detector. This was the point when the crew observed the fire and notified the dispatcher of a possible derailment. However, the reading of 103 degrees above the ambient temperature at the second HBD could hint at a potential problem. According to the NTSB, Norfolk Southern’s established policy is not to stop and inspect a train unless the reported HBD temperature is above 170 degrees. The company considers any reading above 200 degrees to be a critical emergency.
The NTSB’s East Palestine derailment investigation is still ongoing. The agency is set to focus on Norfolk Southern’s use of wayside defect detectors and its railcar inspection practices. While Ohio’s governor says he doesn’t see any issues in East Palestine, the NTSB is going to investigate the derailment fully.