Feb 24, 2023 - Economy

East Palestine train crash investigators hunt for truth, as theories flourish

The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Photo: US Environmental Protection Agency / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

More details emerged yesterday about what caused the Norfolk Southern train derailment earlier this month, an accident that's captivated public attention and drawn partisan ire.

Why it matters: Accusations, speculation, conspiracies and finger-pointing flourished in the information vacuum following the Feb. 3 derailment — turning it into a kind of Rorschach test for politicians, industry insiders and the public. Yesterday's report offers a more fact-based understanding of events.

The latest: The report by the National Transportation Safety Board found that a wheel bearing, which connects the wheel to its axis, overheated on a hopper car toward the front of the train.

  • That set off an "audible alarm" on the train. The crew tried to slow the train, with the goal of inspecting the bearing, according to the NTSB's preliminary report.
  • During the deceleration, the wheel bearing failed and the train derailed, said NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy during a press conference Thursday.
  • "This was 100% preventable," she added.

Zoom out: There's finger-pointing all around. Republicans are accusing President Biden of not reacting swiftly enough — with some in the party leveraging populist arguments criticizing public health regulators and corporate elites who don't care about regular people.

  • Conspiracy theorists are also running with this news, spreading misinformation on TikTok.
  • Meanwhile, Democrats are pointing at the railroad companies and at the Trump White House for relaxing certain safety regulations around trains and chemicals.
  • The rail unions, still smarting from the bruising labor negotiations of last year, are accusing the railroad industry of sacrificing safety for profits.

For the record: "Safety is critical to all the industry does and any suggestion to the contrary is categorically false," a spokesperson for the Association of American Railroads, which works with all the freight operators, told Axios.

  • "We and the rail industry need to learn as much as we can from this event," Norfolk Southern said in a statement Thursday.

What's next: The NTSB will investigate how the bearing failed. It's known in the industry that bearings can cause catastrophic failures, she said.

  • It’s also looking into the response to the accident, which has been widely criticized, as well as staffing, maintenance and a host of other issues.
  • Crucially: Regulators will examine how Norfolk Southern uses alerts like the one that went off here. (Workers have said they've cut too many corners in this area, as FreightWaves reported Thursday.)
  • The investigation will take 12–18 months, but if the agency sees something urgent, it will act. There are at least eight other agencies, unions and companies conducting fact-finding alongside the NTSB.

What to watch: Lawmakers and many inside, or close to, the industry hope the accident will spur regulatory changes.

  • "I gotta tell you, ever since I came into this job, I have seen the power that multibillion-dollar railroad companies wield — and they fight safety regulations tooth and nail. That's gotta change," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said on "Good Morning America" earlier this week.
  • The White House wants Congress to lead an effort to reinstate a rule requiring new braking technology that was scrapped in the Trump era.
  • The administration also wants to increase punitive fines, which are currently capped at just $200,000 — not a meaningful amount for a multibillion-dollar industry, Ian Duncan of the Washington Post explained to Axios Today.

The bottom line: The railroad companies might have thought their days in the spotlight were over once they ironed out a contract with their workers late last year. Instead, they find themselves in the midst of a national story  with a long tail — that's captivated the country's attention.

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