Norfolk Southern Outlines New Six-Point Safety Plan

Written by David C. Lester, Engineering Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Railway Track & Structures
David C. Lester Photograph

David C. Lester Photograph

Norfolk Southern (NS) on March 6 announced a six-point plan to immediately enhance the safety of its operations. The initiatives are based on the preliminary findings of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) following the East Palestine, Ohio, derailment, the Class I railroad reported.

“Reading the NTSB report makes it clear that meaningful safety improvements require a comprehensive industry effort that brings together railcar and tank car manufacturers, railcar owners and lessors, and the railroad companies,” NS President and CEO Alan H. Shaw said. “We are eager to help drive that effort and we are not waiting to take action.”

NS said it will immediately begin the following initiatives:

  1. Enhance the hot bearing detector network. NS is evaluating the distance between hot bearing detectors, which currently averages 13.9 miles on its core network. The Class I said it will “examine every location on its core network where the distance is more than 15 miles and develop a plan to deploy additional detectors where practical due to terrain and operating conditions.” NS anticipates adding approximately 200 hot bearing detectors to its network, with the first installed on the western approach to East Palestine. 
  2. Pilot next-generation hot bearing detectors. NS is working with manufacturers “to accelerate the testing and deployment of safety technology on its network that can scan a greater cross-section of a railcar’s bearings and wheels,” it reported. “These so-called ‘multi-scan’ hot bearing detectors may offer the potential to catch overheated bearings more effectively.”
  3. Work with industry on practices for hot bearing detectors. NS said it intends to work with the industry on “a comprehensive review of standards and practices for the use of hot bearing detectors.” In addition to “reevaluating the temperature threshold at which an alarm is triggered,” the railroad said it plans “to work with peers to analyze data for patterns that could provide earlier warnings of potential safety issues.” NS also plans to partner with other railroads to review best practices, including response to high-temperature alarms. 
  4. Deploy more acoustic bearing detectors. “In addition to enhancing its use of hot bearing detectors, Norfolk Southern will immediately accelerate the deployment of acoustic bearing detectors, which play a different role in its safety inspection program,” the railroad said. “These detectors analyze the acoustic signature of vibration inside the axle and can identify potential problems that a visual inspection could not.” NS reported that it will add 13 new detectors to the five already in service, stationing these devices on high-traffic routes around its core network. It said this will “strengthen the early-warning system that identifies potential risks before they become issues.”
  5. Accelerate the Digital Train Inspection program. NS said it is partnering with Georgia Tech Research Institute “to develop a next generation of its most advanced safety inspection technology, which uses machine vision and algorithms powered by artificial intelligence to identify defects and needed repairs much more effectively than traditional human inspection.” According to the railroad, ultra-high-resolution cameras stationed in strategic locations around its network will provide “a 360-degree health check on railcars, improving its ability to detect, diagnose and repair defects before they become issues.” NS said it is “accelerating the installation of the next phase of this new technology on its Premier Corridor,” which connects the Midwest and Northeast and is the line that runs through East Palestine. 
  6. Support a strong safety culture. NS said it has agreed to join the Federal Railroad Administration’s Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS), which will “build upon its own long-standing Close Call Experience Program, which encourages railroaders to speak up if they see something that is unsafe.” (For more, read: AAR: Class I’s On Board With C3RS; FRA Data Points to ‘Strong Safety Record’)

These safety measures, NS noted, follow the Feb. 23 release of the NTSB’s preliminary report, which traced the derailment and the initial fire to an overheated axle on car No. 23, which was carrying plastic pellets. Subsequent NTSB testing indicated that the aluminum covers over the pressure relief valves on three of the five tank cars carrying vinyl chloride melted. The NTSB found that NS’s rail crew operated the train within the company’s rules and operated the train below the track speed limit. Additionally, the NTSB reported that wayside hot bearing detectors were operating as designed.

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