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Crew tried to stop Ohio train after alert on overheating wheel bearing, NTSB says

The investigation will look at Norfolk Southern’s use of track defect detectors, their spacing and whether information should be monitored in real time

National Transportation Safety Board chair Jennifer Homendy announced on Feb. 23 preliminary results of a probe into the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment. (Video: Reuters)
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The crew of the Norfolk Southern train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, received an alert about an overheating wheel bearing and was trying to slow the train before it came off the tracks, according to a preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report released Thursday.

As the engineer applied the brakes, an automatic braking system kicked in, according to the report. A detection system along the track indicated a wheel bearing was heating up over several miles as the train approached the derailment site, but the temperature didn’t trigger a system that would have forced stoppage of the train until shortly before the incident. At that point, it registered 253 degrees Fahrenheit above the air temperature.

The NTSB report indicated the train had passed three detectors over about 30 miles, and was at the third when the temperature of the bearing tripped the emergency threshold.

Jennifer Homendy, chairwoman of the safety board, said the investigation will look at Norfolk Southern’s use of the defect detectors, their spacing and whether information is monitored in real time. The placement and spacing of the detectors and the temperature thresholds are set by individual railroads and vary across the industry.

Before Ohio derailment, Norfolk Southern lobbied against safety rules

“Had there been a detector earlier,” Homendy said, “that derailment may not have occurred.”

The NTSB’s preliminary report didn’t formally reach conclusions about the cause of the derailment but shed new light about the wheel bearing malfunction days after the agency indicated it had overheated. The report makes no mention of any apparent human error or track problem. The derailment site on Thursday also was host to the second Cabinet member to visit this week, coming amid criticism aimed at the federal government over its response.

The Feb. 3 derailment, characterized by images of a fireball and billowing smoke rising over the community near the Pennsylvania border, has ignited calls for stricter regulation and increased fines for railroad safety breaches. Twenty cars in the 149-car Norfolk Southern train were carrying hazardous materials, 11 of which derailed, along with 27 cars carrying nonhazardous goods, the NTSB said.

Security footage shows Ohio train before derailment on Feb. 3 (Video: Butech Bliss via Storyful)

The agency’s report on Thursday indicated the train was traveling at 47 mph, below the 50 mph speed limit, when it went off the tracks. After the train came to a stop, the crew reported fire and smoke to the dispatcher, alerting them of a possible derailment, the report said.

Surveillance video shows a wheel bearing in the “final stage of overheat failure” moments before the derailment, the safety board said.

Norfolk Southern thanked NTSB investigators for their work, saying in a statement, “We and the rail industry need to learn as much as we can from this event.”

The company said its detectors have a temperature threshold that is “among the lowest in the rail industry,” adding that it had recently inspected the detectors near the derailment site under federal supervision and found they were working as designed. The company is now inspecting all of its nearly 1,000 detectors, on top of 30-day routine inspections.

The report was released as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the scene in East Palestine, where he pledged regulatory changes to the industry.

Buttigieg’s office said he was visiting now because the Environmental Protection Agency had shifted from an emergency response to the longer-term process of remediation. After describing the twisted metal and burned-off plastic placards that had warned of hazardous materials, he said his department will make industry changes that don’t require congressional action.

“The initial stages of the response to this incident are giving way to the longer-term investigation and the safety policy work that we do,” he said.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan has visited East Palestine twice. On Tuesday, he announced the agency was tightening its oversight of the cleanup, issuing Norfolk Southern an order to carry out the work on terms approved by the federal government. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has also sent a team to East Palestine in response to an Ohio state request to support the EPA.

An overheated bearing is perhaps the most common cause of a failed axle in a derailment, said Allan Zarembski, director of the Railway Engineering and Safety Program at the University of Delaware. Once a bearing fails, it can impede the movement of a train car’s wheels, causing a derailment. In recent years, railroads — including Norfolk Southern — have added sensors on tracks that measure the temperature of bearings to determine whether overheating could pose a derailment risk.

Those sensors, known as hotbox detectors, use infrared scans to measure temperature. There are about 6,000 across North America, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

The NTSB said that about 30 miles from East Palestine, the wheel bearing from Car 23 — which carried plastic pellets and was the first car to leave the tracks — recorded a temperature of 38 degrees higher than the air temperature, then 10 miles later had heated to 103 degrees higher, still not raising alarm. At the third sensor, 20 miles later and just east of East Palestine, the temperature had risen to 253 degrees above the air temperature, setting off a critical alarm.

Buttigieg, White House face backlash in aftermath of Ohio derailment

Norfolk Southern’s policy requires crews to stop and inspect a rail car after a sensor indicates a bearing has reached 170 degrees higher than the air temperature, or when there is a difference in temperatures between bearings on the same axle of at least 115 degrees, according to the report. If a bearing overheats beyond 200 degrees, the rail car must be removed.

The report does not indicate what might have caused the bearing to start overheating. Homendy said there were several possible causes, including fatigue cracking, water damage or a defective wheel. A final report is not likely for at least a year.

The engineer was following another train and already was slowing down when the alert came in, Homendy said. The wheel bearing failed during that deceleration, she said, and Car 23 derailed, triggering the emergency brake. She said the engineer reacted “immediately” to the alert and that there was no evidence the three-person crew mishandled the incident.

Jeff Guzzetti, a former accident investigator with the NTSB, said that by looking at the damage of the wheel set and testing the metal, investigators can determine the temperature of the wheel.

“From there, they can ask the question, ‘Why did it get that hot, and why was it not detected in time?’” Guzzetti said.

Unlike for aviation incidents, the NTSB isn’t mandated to issue a preliminary report for rail investigations. The agency also rarely investigates nonfatal rail incidents. The heightened attention to the Ohio derailment, however, has put pressure on the independent board to release facts about the derailment before the investigation is complete.

The train was carrying 115,000 gallons of vinyl chloride. In the aftermath of the derailment, the temperature in one of the five tank cars carrying the highly toxic gas began to rise, worrying authorities about a potentially catastrophic explosion. Homendy said the reading in the car was 140 degrees — 40 degrees shy of a critical point. Responders then conducted a controlled release and burn of the chemical.

Some officials, including Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (D), have questioned that move. Homendy said investigators will evaluate whether the vent and burn was carried out according to FRA guidance and whether that guidance needs to be updated.

Although the 20 hazmat cars in the train had warning placards that provide critical information to emergency responders, Homendy said they were made of plastic and had melted. Investigators probably will provide recommendations on how to protect placards, she said.

The suspected overheated wheel bearing was taken to a Washington lab for examination. The vinyl chloride tank cars’ top fittings, including the relief valves, have been removed and secured in a locked container for NTSB examination, officials said.

As part of the NTSB probe into Norfolk Southern’s use of the track detectors and the railroad’s inspection practices, investigators will look at the wheel set and bearing, the tank car design, and derailment damage. They also will review the accident response, including the venting and burning of the vinyl chloride.

Experts say the agency probably is trying to assess the integrity of the tanks, what caused them to rupture and any potential factors that could have contributed to the release of the toxic gas.

Norfolk Southern said it is continuing to monitor air and water quality and is in the process of removing rail cars and contaminated soil. Crews have removed 4,500 cubic yards of soil and 1.5 million gallons of contaminated water, the company said.

Buttigieg announces track inspections in wake of Ohio train derailment

The railroad said it has partnered with multiple agencies and experts to expedite cleanup efforts and has reassured residents it will “thoroughly and safely” clean the site. The company said it was distributing more than $1.5 million to more than 1,000 families to cover costs tied to the evacuation and is setting up a $1 million community fund.

Buttigieg laid out rail safety proposals ahead of his visit and highlighted efforts in the Trump administration to roll back regulations. He wrote to the chief executive of Norfolk Southern on Sunday, saying he expected the railroad to live up to promises to help the community recover.

Former president Donald Trump, a 2024 presidential candidate, visited East Palestine on Wednesday, ratcheting up political stakes surrounding the derailment. Buttigieg mentioned Trump on Thursday, saying the current administration’s actions were not to blame, adding: “One thing he could do is express support for reversing the regulation that happened on his watch. … We’re not afraid to own our policies.”

At the Sprinklz On Top diner on Thursday, 79-year-old Gary Thompson, a Democrat in the mostly Republican town, sat alone at the far end of the counter while reading a local newspaper that had Trump’s visit on the front page.

“What’s he going to change?” Thompson said. “I don’t know what power he has.”

Buttigieg, on the other hand, had the influence to make changes, Thompson said, adding that he thought the secretary’s suggestions for train safety changes made sense.

Not everyone agreed: Kathleen Unkefer, a floral designer at Flowers Straight From The Heart, said she thought Trump’s visit spurred the administration to do more, including prompting Buttigieg’s visit.

“Now we’re getting some results,” she said.

Trump visits Ohio amid political showdown over train derailment

Homendy said the needs of East Palestine must be the priority, expressing frustration about the politicization of the incident. She said the safety board would take the unusual step of hosting a public hearing this spring to share information with the public and help to build support for safety measures.

“This is a community that is suffering,” she said. “This is not about politics.”

Ian Duncan and Luz Lazo reported from Washington. Meryl Kornfield reported from East Palestine, Ohio.

The Ohio train derailment and chemical spill

The latest: Senators questioned Norfolk Southern’s CEO on rail safety records as Ohio is suing the freight company. In February, the National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report on the Ohio train derailment.

What are the health risks of the chemical spill? One toxic gas, vinyl chloride, was burned after the derailment, sending various toxins and chemicals into the air. The EPA is handling the disaster response.

The politics: Amid a partisan divide over the disaster response, former president Donald Trump and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the derailment site.

Who is impacted? The Biden administration is taking heat for not doing enough to help, while Ohio residents are angry after Norfolk Southern backed out of a town hall addressing the response. The derailment also killed more than 43,000 aquatic animals in the area. Here’s what to know about the derailment’s toxic plume.