Investigators have said they are looking at whether Norfolk Southern had enough hot bearing detectors alongside the track leading to East Palestine. A bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate last week would require such detectors every 10 miles on track that is used to transport hazardous cargo, which would force railroads to install many more than they have now.
How Norfolk Southern responded to problems with bearings is under scrutiny in two derailments that occurred last year and that the Federal Railroad Administration detailed in a safety advisory last week.
In one of the derailments, in July, a rail car was attached to a train after the company received warnings that its bearing was overheating on an earlier trip from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Macon, Ga. The bearing later critically overheated, and a camera on a police car showed the rail car being dragged over a crossing just before the train derailed in Warner Robins, Ga., according to the railroad agency.
Before the other derailment, in October in Sandusky, Ohio, the crew stopped the train and noticed smoke coming from a bearing. An electrician who performed an inspection reported that the bearing had cooled by the time he reached the train. The crew asked the car to be removed but was directed to move the train with the car attached. After traveling another seven miles, the car derailed, the railroad agency said, leading to power outages for 1,200 residents.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of Metro-North was prompted by five crashes between May 2013 and March 2014 that left six people dead. The board concluded that railroad did not properly investigate crashes, ignored known deficiencies and didn’t use a program it had in place to safely manage its employees and operations. The board, which investigates crashes and makes recommendations but does not issue rules, also criticized the Federal Railroad Administration, the country’s primary rail safety regulator.
The big freight railroad companies have become much more profitable in recent years by keeping costs in check and making their operations more efficient. But rail union leaders and some lawmakers said the companies had cut too many workers and were not spending enough on safety.
“We’ve been increasing our safety spend,” Norfolk Southern’s chief financial officer, Mark R. George, said at an investor conference last month after the East Palestine accident. “And I would imagine we will continue to increase our safety spend.”