East Palestine derailment update
We are now three months past the derailment of the Norfolk Southern freight train in East Palestine, Ohio. What have we learned?
On Feb. 6, 2023, Michael Graham of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) informed the public that the derailment was caused by a broken axle on one of the freight cars. He noted that the train had a crew of three and that the crew was able to disconnect the two locomotives and move away to a safe distance. There was no information about the potential imminent explosion of one vinyl chloride tank car — just the comment, "Once the fire is out, the railcars will be moved for further damage assessment." Later that day, there was a "vent and burn" operation in conformance with the Federal Railway Administration handbook covering such situations. The towering column of smoke and flame caused quite a ruckus. And as is usually the case, no one wants to take ownership of the decision to proceed in conformance with federal regulations. Where was Pete "#SecretaryPete" Buttigieg?
Clearly, there are two issues to address. The first would be to reduce the number of broken axles in the whole fleet of rolling stock on America's railroads. Then we can look at the vent and burn strategy. This was not the first rail accident where a broken axle on a freight car carrying non-hazardous material caused the derailment of tank cars carrying hazardous fuel oil with a resultant fire and significant pollution. The NTSB even has videos and a completed report of the prior accident in Caselton, North Dakota. Two BNSF freight trains (BNSF is owned by Democrat mega-donor Warren Buffett) were passing in opposite directions when an axle on a grain car broke and the car derailed. It fell onto the parallel track, and the unit train with a string of tank cars containing fuel oil collided with the wreckage, derailed, and caught fire.
The NTSB re-creation video shows an interval of 93 seconds from the time the axle broke to when the crew of the crude oil train reported that they were on fire.
In the Norfolk Southern derailment, the car with the broken axle was loaded with plastic pellets that caught fire and burned, causing major problems for the firefighters as they arrived.
To be helpful, rather than join the chorus of finger-pointers, I offer the suggestion that we turn our attention to preventing broken axles. If the two axles had not broken, the two accidents would have been 100% prevented. It is apparent that the NTSB recommendations following the BNSF accident were insufficient. Placing wayside hot-bearing detectors at 40-mile intervals failed to prevent the N.S. derailment.
Maybe we could get NTSB chairwoman Jennifer Homandy to attend the 20th International Wheelset Congress in Chicago from May 8 to 11. The co-host, Amsted Rail, notes that it is "the oldest railway technical conference in the world."
How much more could the public learn from the private sector than from government bureaucrats? Secretary Buttigieg struck out. The U.S. DoT has published its plan, which is silent on the issue of broken axles. Now let's look at Amsted Rail's list of innovations. Judge for yourself.