OMAHA, Neb. -- Freight railroads should reexamine the way they use and maintain the detectors along the tracks that are supposed to spot overheating bearings, federal regulators urged Tuesday in the wake of a fiery Ohio derailment and other recent crashes.
The safety advisory from the Federal Railroad Administration stopped short of telling the railroads exactly what to do. Instead, it encouraged them to make sure the detectors are getting inspected often enough by trained employees and that the railroads have safe standards for determining when to stop a train or park a railcar when a warning is triggered.
The National Transportation Safety Board has said the crew operating the Norfolk Southern train that derailed outside East Palestine, Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border on Feb. 3 got a warning from such a detector but couldn't stop the train before more than three dozen cars came off the tracks and caught fire. The Federal Railroad Administration said overheating bearings likely caused at least four other derailments since 2021.
The Ohio derailment forced half the town of about 5,000 people to evacuate for days as toxic chemicals burned, leaving residents with lingering health concerns. Government tests haven't found dangerous levels of chemicals in the air or water in the area. The EPA opened an office in the town Tuesday to help address residents' questions.
“For trains containing hazardous materials, the potential consequence of a derailment is catastrophic, and allowing a train transporting a hazardous material to continue to operate, without restriction, after an HBD (hot bearing detector) alert is likely not appropriate,” the FRA advisory said.
Norfolk Southern officials didn't immediately respond to the advisory. After the NTSB issued its preliminary findings last week, the railroad said the derailment had prompted it to inspect all of the nearly 1,000 trackside heat detectors on its network. That was on top of regular inspections it normally does on those sensors every 30 days, Norfolk Southern said.
Dave Clarke, the former director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee, said the safety advisory was not surprising.
“This is just FRA proposing the obvious, in my opinion. I doubt if any Class I (major freight railroad) was waiting for this,” he said.
But railroad labor groups welcomed the move. Unions say the major freight railroads have become riskier because workers are spread so thin after deep job cuts over the past six years, inspections are being rushed, and preventative maintenance may be neglected.
“There are no federal regulations guiding wayside detectors, including their placement along tracks or temperature thresholds. There’s not even a federal definition of wayside detection technologies,” said Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department coalition that includes all rail unions. "Rail workers are eager to see a complete set of federal regulations on the installation, operation, testing, repairs, and maintenance of all wayside detection technologies, including defect detectors.”
In the Ohio derailment, the bearing that failed got hotter as it passed three detectors before the crash but didn't get hot enough to set off a warning until the last detector, according to the NTSB. The FRA said railroads should consider developing ways to analyze temperature trends those sensors spot to help identify potential problems sooner.
The Association of American Railroads trade group said the industry has a strong track record of pushing for safety improvements and tough tank car standards to prevent hazardous materials spills. The group said the widespread use of these detectors is an example of the industry's commitment to safety.
Professor Allan Zarembski, who leads the University of Delaware’s rail engineering and safety program, noted that overheating bearings cause only a handful of the more than 1,000 derailments each year, indicating that the existing system already finds nearly all such problems.
"There’s great political pressure to do something now — knee-jerk reaction, `Do something now. We’ve got to do something now.' But I’m not convinced the knee-jerk reaction is going to do a lot of good,” Zarembski said.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg proposed a number of safety improvements last week, but the industry has been pushing to delay any major changes until after the NTSB completes its investigation a year or more from now.
This version corrects the population of East Palestine.