Earlier today, Alan Shaw, president and CEO, of Atlanta-based Class I railroad carrier Norfolk Southern provided testimony at a U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works (EPW) hearing, regarding the February 3 derailment of an NS train in East Palestine, Ohio.
As previously reported, the National Safety Transportation Board (NTSB) said in a February 14 update that as a result of the derailment, 38 rail cars derailed and a fire ensued which damaged an additional 12 cars, adding that there were 20 total hazardous material cars in the train—11 of which derailed. And on February 23, in its preliminary report, it said that surveillance video from a local residence showed what appeared to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment. It added that the wheel bearing and affected wheelset were collected as evidence to be examined by the NTSB.
In his testimony, Shaw provided an update on NS cleaning the derailment site, assisting families whose lives were disrupted, investing in the community, and making Norfolk Southern and the railroad industry safer.
“I am deeply sorry for the impact this derailment has had on the people of East Palestine and surrounding communities, and I am determined to make it right,” he said.
Shaw said that NS is working under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's recent Unilateral Administrative Order and has submitted a long-term removal plan that will guide its comprehensive testing program for the community's water, air, and soil, adding that the testing is guided by science, with NS to continue to share the results transparently.
From a financial perspective, he said that NS has committed to reimbursements and investments of more than $20 million in total, including by helping more than 4,200 families through its Family Assistance Center located in East Palestine, noting that supporting first responders has been a particular area of focus, and its contributions include more than $3 million to assist the East Palestine Fire Department.
“This financial assistance is just a down payment,” he said. “I've met with community leaders, business owners, school officials, clergy, and others to begin to identify ways we can invest in the future prosperity of East Palestine and support the long-term needs of its people. We will continue to invest in East Palestine for as long as it takes to help the community recover and thrive. We are also committed to learning from this accident and working with public officials and the industry to make railroads even safer. In the meantime, we have already launched a series of immediate steps to enhance safety, based on the facts in the National Transportation Safety Board's preliminary report. We look forward to cooperating with the NTSB as it continues its investigation into the root cause of the accident as well as its wider investigation.”
Shaw explained that NS is committed to making the rail industry safer, saying the company will analyze and address the NTSB investigation results once they are made available, with the caveat that it is not waiting to act.
“The NTSB's preliminary report released last month reflected that the Norfolk Southern crew was operating the train within our protocols and below the speed limit,” he said. “The sensors in place to identify overheated axles operated properly, and the crew took the appropriate action when they received the alert. We currently spend $1 billion a year on technologies, equipment, and infrastructure to enhance safety. But the safety mechanisms in place did not prevent this accident, so we are focused on learning from this incident and working with industry to make changes.”
What’s more, he noted NS is focused on making its network of early-warning sensors stronger, with the company focused on the following efforts:
Other steps the company is taking with an eye on safety, it highlighted, include what Shaw called a deliberate move away from “a singular focus on operating ratio,” which he said is a common industry measure of efficiency, and moving towards a more balanced approach to service, productivity, and growth.
“As just one example of what our strategy means in practice, instead of furloughing workers during periodic economic downturns, we intend to use the opportunity to invest in our workforce and provide additional training,” he said. “When we do that, it makes us a more resilient company that is better able to serve our customers, and it creates more career opportunities for our craft railroaders. We hired craft railroaders aggressively throughout 2022 and continue to do so this year.”
Shaw said that NS, in tandem with the other seven North American-based Class I railroads, will be joining the Federal Railroad Administration’s Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS), which the FRA said provides a safe environment for employees to report unsafe events and conditions and employees receive protection from discipline and FRA enforcement.
In his concluding comments to the Senate EPW Committee’s leadership and its members, Shaw said that expressed how sorry NS is for the impact of the derailment on East Palestine, its surrounding communities, and all of the people that have been affected.
“We are making progress in the recovery and know our work is not yet done,” he said. “On behalf of the more than 19,700 hard-working employees of Norfolk Southern, I pledge that we won't be finished until we make it right.”