EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (WKBN) – The Federal Railroad Administration’s last routine audit of Norfolk Southern found issues that “may raise the overall risk of train derailment.”
The audit, dated July 8, 2022, was conducted from January to May 2022. It was the FRA’s last audit of Norfolk Southern before the train derailment in East Palestine earlier this month.
The audit noted that Norfolk Southern’s programs were “largely effective and compliant with safety regulations,” but there were a few issues noted, mostly with record-keeping.
Among the issues noted, the FRA found “inadequate communication” between the company’s transportation and mechanical departments. The audit states that the required equipment inspections were performed, but in some cases, either the defective conditions that were identified by the inspections were not reported to the mechanical department for repair, or the equipment was not removed from service until repairs could be made.
“This inadequate communication could expose crews to increased personal injury hazards and may raise the overall risk of train derailment,” the audit noted.
The FRA audit also found instances where Norfolk Southern did not take immediate action to remediate defective conditions, calling it a “concern.”
The FRA’s Hazardous Materials Division also conducted an audit between April 4 and 16 at 50 locations through 17 states where Norfolk Southern operates.
At several locations and dates, trains were observed with missing required placards indicating that they were hauling hazardous materials.
“In the event of an emergency, responders rely on the information on a placard as one of the sources of information to determine the proper response to a release of the hazardous material in question. An improper response could exacerbate the hazards associated with the release, possibly putting emergency responders, employees, and potentially the public in additional harm’s way,” the audit noted.
The audit also noted that the locations of hazardous materials shipments are sometimes not accurately documented. The train crew must have a document that reflects the current position of each rail car containing a hazardous material and also must note any changes in the placement of that rail car within the train. A member of the crew must have a copy of the document for emergency response documentation. The information must also be updated electronically.
The FRA found 39 instances of noncompliance and recommended 22 violations for noncompliance.
“In the case of a train derailment, it is vital that either the carrier’s personnel or emergency
responders have an accurate location of railcars containing hazardous materials in the train.
Without accurate information, there is an increased likelihood for person(s) walking the train to
come in contact with a breached rail car containing a hazardous material,” the audit noted.
In the East Palestine train derailment, local first responders weren’t immediately informed what hazardous materials that the derailed train was carrying, and it wasn’t until more than a week after the derailment that WKBN was provided with the full list of chemicals on board.
FRA regulations require trains to be inspected and tested at each train’s originating yard and at various points throughout the trains’ journey. Additionally, if a train is transporting hazardous materials, regulations require the inspection of individual rail cars transporting the hazardous materials at each location where that material is accepted for transportation or placed in a train.
Railroads are not required to provide FRA with these reports as to when the inspections occur, but the FRA reviews and audits railroads’ inspection records for compliance.
The FRA noted that it met with Norfolk Southern in regard to the findings in its audit and that “some encouraging and progressive measures already discussed are moving in a positive direction.”
For its part, Norfolk Southern says its reportable injuries have declined more than 20 percent between 2020 and 2021 and says the company diligently monitors its trains and infrastructure to identify potential hazards.
The company released the following statement Tuesday in response to WKBN’s questions about the audit:
“Our industry-leading engineering and mechanical teams are executing projects that enhance our inspection quality and infrastructure to provide safer outcomes. We have developed many leading technologies that greatly improve our network safety, including an industry-first locomotive-mounted autonomous track geometry system. At the same time, we have ramped investment in conductor onboarding and training to ensure we are building a team that safely delivers for our customers.”
The National Transportation Safety Board is now leading an investigation into the East Palestine train derailment on Feb. 3.
Thirty-eight rail cars derailed, causing a fire that damaged an additional 12 cars. There were 20 total hazardous material cars — 11 of which derailed, according to the NTSB.
According to the NTSB’s latest update, investigators have identified and examined the rail car that initiated the derailment. Surveillance video from a residence showed what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment.
A final report identifying the probable cause of the derailment and any safety recommendations, if any, will be issued at a later date.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who talked to First News on Tuesday, has called for several freight reforms. He urged Norfolk Southern to deploy new inspection technologies; phase in new, safer tank cars; and notify state emergency officials in advance if hazardous gas is being transported through their state.
The Department of Transportation will also begin a series of inspections of routes over which trains with a large amount of hazardous material travel and advance a new rule requiring that at least two railroad staff be present for most operations.
Buttigieg urged Congress to increase the fines that the Transportation Department can levy against rail companies for safety violations, which currently sits at a little over $225,000.
You can read the FRA’s full audit of Norfolk Southern below:
The Associated Press contributed to this report.