When a Norfolk Southern (NS) freight train derailed just outside East Palestine, Ohio, on a clear evening in early February 2023, few anticipated the colossal change the event would trigger across the nation’s railway industry. In this blog, we’ll review:
- What we know of the incident
- What changes are forthcoming in its wake
- The opportunity the event may offer railroad companies to transform their safety programs for the better
What happened that night in Ohio?
The derailment of NS freight train 32N on February 3, 2023, around 9:00 pm local time, would result in 38 rail cars leaving the main track near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. The cars leaving the track included 11 tankers carrying hazardous materials, most notably vinyl chloride, a highly volatile flammable gas used in plastics manufacturing. First responders, fearing the fire triggered by the event would ignite the gas and result in an uncontrolled and potentially catastrophic explosion, decided to breach five of the derailed tankers to vent and burn off over 115,000 gallons of the chemical1. That decision resulted in the forced evacuation of over 2,000 local residents for 5 days and has caused lingering concerns over the event’s long-term environmental and human health impact.
An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that the derailment was most likely caused by a wheel bearing failure on the 23rd car, causing a fire and resulting in that car (and 10 others) leaving the track near East Palestine. The NTSB reports that a ‘wayside defect detector’ – a device installed on the track to monitor and report issues with signals, axles, and wheel bearings as trains pass by them2 – recorded just before the event that the bearing’s temperature was ~250oF (121oC) above the outside temperature of 10oF, signaling a critical issue. While the train crew, upon receiving an alert from the track-side sensor, immediately began braking procedures, investigators argue that the bearing was likely already so damaged that it failed as the train was coming to a stop3, leading to the derailment.
It’s a bigger problem than we think
While such catastrophic events are seemingly rare, research shows that they occur more frequently than we’d like to believe. Available data from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the agency under the U.S. Department of Transportation authorized to govern the industry, reveals that the rate of train derailments across the U.S. has increased 18% over the last 10 years, growing from 1.7 to 2.0 derailments per million miles traveled4. Officials report that there were 818 derailments in 2022 alone, with over half of involved trains carrying hazardous chemicals. So, what’s causing the increasing rate of events, and what can (and should) we do about them?
According to the FRA, broken rails and welds are the leading cause of train derailment, accounting for 15-20% of all events nationwide5. But brake and wheel bearing failures are a close second. As explained by NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy, “Roller bearings fail. But it’s absolutely critical for problems to be identified and addressed early, so these [devices] aren’t run to failure”6 .
Identifying early warning signs of track and rail car equipment failures that could lead to derailments requires a mix of automated and visual inspections. Rail safety experts argue, however, that gaps in safety regulations create enough ambiguity that many of these required inspections are often missed.
Firstly, the installation, use, inspection and maintenance of wayside track sensors are not governed by federal rail safety regulations. Consequently, it’s left to the railroad companies to determine where to install these devices, the minimum distance between devices, the threshold to which they are set and alarm to indicate when something’s wrong, and the frequency in which they need to be inspected and maintained7 . That could mean that crews need to inspect thousands of devices over thousands of miles of track per year. If inspections aren’t conducted regularly, there’s a risk that a faulty sensor will not pick up the early signs of a bearing failure before a train might leave the track.
Similarly, while railroad operators are required to visually inspect tracks and the cars riding along them, there is often uncertainty – and in some cases outright disagreement – between rail workers and their employers as to what constitutes a ‘taggable’ defect; a mechanical issue serious enough to require the railroad company to remove the car from the track8. With railroad companies looking to reduce the time trains are stationary (“dwell time”), there is often pressure for rail workers to complete required inspections in as little as 60 seconds. When issues are noted, many rail workers lack the ability to adequately document and easily share those findings with management. Moreover, while the FRA promotes “whistleblower laws” – protections for rail workers to anonymously report issues or possible violations to regulators9 – many of these employees lack a reliable means to share that information directly from the front-line. And as a result, they never speak up.
Where do we go from here?
In the wake of the event, multiple railroad companies have publicly committed to installing more track-side sensors on main operating lines across the country. But adding more sensors means more inspections to ensure they are working properly. Likewise, the Federal Railroad Administration recently announced a plan to increase ‘Targeted Track Inspections’10 to ensure railroad companies are meeting their compliance obligations. And failure to complete required inspections on time could cost companies deeply.
A new bi-partisan railway safety bill introduced in the U.S. Senate proposes, amongst other changes, to increase fines against rail companies for violations of safety regulations. Companies found guilty could soon face fine amounts up to 1% of their annual operating income for each violation11. In this environment, it’s critical that railroad companies take a much closer look at their safety programs, and potentially consider how software could help ensure required inspections are conducted appropriately, while also helping their front-line staff identify and address critical infrastructure and equipment problems before they result in fines – or heaven forbid – another train derailment.
The problems with traditional safety inspection & reporting systems
Traditional field-based inspection programs are frequently plagued by inefficiency. Front-line employees are required to document their inspection findings on paper checklists that then need to be collected, and manually transcribed into other systems or databases to categorize issues and prioritize repairs. This administratively heavy manual process slows an organization’s ability to respond quickly and decisively to identified problems with critical equipment. A single errant keystroke or missing checklist might result in a critical issue being deprioritized or blatantly forgotten, allowing it to fester into a much bigger problem.
Then there’s the issue of ambiguity. Rail safety experts argue that when performed correctly, visual inspections can reveal telltale warning signs of a broken bearing, including visible grease leaks and seal damage. But most front-line employees do not have easy access to work instructions or manuals that could serve as reference points to help them better distinguish between ‘taggable’ defects that must be addressed immediately, versus others that can be later scheduled for repair.
Let’s not forget compliance. Railroad companies are likely facing considerable regulatory headwinds in light of the East Palestine derailment. As regulators visit their operations, these firms need to be able to show clear, documented evidence that inspections are being conducted on time, and that critical defects are prioritized and resolved in a timely manner. Many firms overly reliant on manual, paper-based inspection systems may find it exceedingly difficult to easily demonstrate compliance to these requirements, increasing their legal exposure.
The benefits of a digital transformation
Shifting to a digital, cloud-based EHS software platform can vastly improve the efficiency and accuracy of your organization’s safety inspection and reporting processes. Most software platforms offer organizations the ability to create digital checklists, often from pre-built yet configurable templates, that front-line workers can easily access from their mobile device, to complete their require in-field inspections even when offline. Checklists can be configured to create automated corrective actions or notifications based on responses given, reducing the effort required to identify critical issues and prioritize them for resolution.
Digitization of your organization’s inspection programs can also help reduce the ambiguity often faced by inspectors trying to determine the criticality of defects found. Many software solutions enable businesses to append instructions or guidelines to inspection tasks, helping guide workers to the right decision at the right moment, reducing the chances that high priority items are swept under the rug. And as these platforms can accommodate multiple languages, organizations can be assured that front-line workers can complete their required inspection tasks easily, in their language of preference, helping to reduce confusion of what they need to do.
When rail workers discover hazards, they have a legal obligation to let their supervisors know in a timely manner. But that can be difficult, especially where they are covering a large operating footprint, or working in small teams on the track. Empowering front-line workers with mobile-enabled solutions wherein they can actively report hazards, near misses, or incidents wherever they are supports better organizational learning, and ensures the railroad company can report applicable events to regulators in a timely manner. At Cority, we help rail customers streamline mandatory reporting to the Federal Railroad Administration, with pre-built templates aligned to commonly-used forms, including FRA 54, 55, 55a, 97 & 98.
Finally, evolving to a digital platform can be a master-stroke in audit performance. Digital solutions create a reliable audit trail that increases transparency and traceability, enabling organizations to clearly show a full history of inspection events, and any corresponding actions taken based on their results. Having all this information in a single, secure location drastically reduces the time and effort to respond to request from regulators, and protects the company from potential liability.
It’s likely that the after-shocks from the train derailment in East Palestine will continue to be felt across the railroad industry for some time. But beyond the potential human and environmental cost of the event, the incident offers the industry a key opportunity to evolve – to bring its safety practices further into the 21st century, and introduce more resilient and reliable systems that will help us better predict and prevent these types of events from ever occurring again. And technology definitely has a role to play in that transformation.
1 NTSB Preliminary Report RRD23MR005. https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/Documents/RRD23MR005%20East%20Palestine%20OH%20Prelim.pdf
2,3,6 Sullivan, B. February 23, 2023. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2023/02/23/1158972561/east-palestine-train-derailment-ntsb-preliminary-report-wheel-bearing
4,7,9 Sainato, M. March 3, 2023. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/mar/03/us-rail-workers-east-palestine-ohio-train-crash
5 Tracy, A., Reznik, T. May 13, 2015. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/broken-rails-are-leading-cause-of-train-derailments/
8 Eavis, P, Walker, M., & Chokski, N. March 7, 2023. NY Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/07/business/norfolk-southern-derailment-east-palestine-regulation.html
10 March 3, 2023. U.S. Department of Transportation. https://www.transportation.gov/briefing-room/matter-weeks-usdot-sees-significant-moves-toward-stronger-rail-safety-standards-and
11 Smyth, J.C. March 1, 2023. Associated Press. https://www.ctvnews.ca/world/ohio-senators-introduce-rail-safety-bill-after-fiery-crash-1.6294650