NTSB: ‘Special Investigation’ of NS

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy. NTSB photo

The National Transportation Safety Board on March 7 said it would be conducting what it’s calling a “special investigation of Norfolk Southern Railway’s organization and safety culture.”

“Given the number and significance of recent Norfolk Southern accidents, the NTSB also urges the company to take immediate action today to review and assess its safety practices, with the input of employees and others, and implement necessary changes to improve safety.”

NTSB’s announcement came one day after NS announced a six-point plan to immediately enhance the safety of its operations. The initiatives are based on the NTSB’s preliminary findings on the East Palestine, Ohio, derailment.

NTSB pointed to “five significant accidents involving Norfolk Southern”:

  • “On Dec. 8, 2021, an employee for National Salvage and Service Corporation assigned to work with a Norfolk Southern work team replacing track was killed when the operator of a spike machine reversed direction and struck the employee in Reed, Pennsylvania. 
  • “On Dec. 13, 2022, a Norfolk Southern trainee conductor was killed, and another conductor was injured, when the lead locomotive of a Norfolk Southern freight train struck a steel angle iron protruding from a gondola car on another Norfolk Southern freight train that was stopped on an adjacent track in Bessemer, Alabama. 
  • “On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The derailment resulted in a significant fire and hazardous materials release. 
  • “On March 4, a 2.55-mile-long Norfolk Southern freight train derailed near Springfield, Ohio.
  • “On March 7, a Norfolk Southern employee was killed during a movement in Cleveland, Ohio.”

“As part of the special investigation, the NTSB will also review the Oct. 8, 2022, Norfolk Southern derailment in Sandusky, Ohio,” the agency said. “The continued safe operations of Norfolk Southern [are] vital to the United States. The NTSB is concerned that several organizational factors may be involved in the accidents, including safety culture. The NTSB will conduct an in-depth investigation into the safety practices and culture of the company. At the same time, the company should not wait to improve safety and the NTSB urges it to do so immediately.”

“Moving forward, we are going to rebuild our safety culture from the ground up,” NS chief executive Alan Shaw said. “We are going to invest more in safety. This is not who we are, it is not acceptable, and it will not continue.”

Shaw, who will be testifying at a Congressional hearing on March 9, commented on the March 7 accident in Cleveland:

“As has now been widely reported, one of our Norfolk Southern colleagues was fatally injured overnight in a tragic accident on the job. Louis Shuster, a conductor from Broadview Heights, Ohio, was struck by a dump truck as his train moved through a rail crossing at the Cleveland-Cliffs Cleveland Works facility. 

“I went to Cleveland as soon as I heard the tragic news. At our Rockport Yard, I talked with several railroaders who worked with Lou, as he was known. They shared stories about an individual who was respected and liked by his colleagues. This is an awful day that leaves a hole in our company’s spirit. We have reached out to Lou’s family to offer our condolences. We will give them time to grieve, and we will be there with support for anything they need. 

“The cause of the accident is not yet known, and we will of course cooperate fully with the National Transportation Safety Board. In some ways, the cause does not matter. I called together every member of our management team this afternoon to emphasize the urgency of finding new solutions. Tomorrow we will hold safety stand-down briefings reaching every employee across our network.”

Editor’s Commentary: The March 9 hearing, called by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is in my opinion little more than a political stunt that will accomplish next to nothing, as most such hearings do. “Alan Shaw told the Committee that he will appear voluntarily …. We continue to engage in discussions with Members of Congress and other committees about additional requests to testify, while balancing his commitments to the remediation process and the community,” an NS spokesperson said. “Alan will share what he knows about the incident. As the NTSB has noted, there are also industry-wide issues, and we would expect that other industry participants will also be involved in future hearings. The rail industry needs to learn as much as it can from East Palestine, as can the owners of the railcars.” Actually, it’s the politicians that could use an education in railroads, a subject they know little or nothing about. It’s disconcerting that Alan Shaw and his colleagues have little choice but to waste their valuable time as sitting ducks in a political target practice session. – William C. Vantuono

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