Mar 8, 2023 - Economy & Business

Norfolk Southern CEO in the hot seat

An Ohio EPA emergency responder looks for signs of fish and checks for chemicals in a creek in East Palestine, Ohio. Photo: Michael Swensen/Getty Images

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw is scheduled to testify before a Senate committee Thursday about the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, as federal regulators open a special investigation into his company's safety practices.

Why it matters: One of the country's largest freight rail operators, Norfolk Southern has become the common enemy in the wake of the devastating accident. Expect a grilling of the chief executive, a longtime company veteran who took the helm last May.

Driving the news: Late Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board said it was launching a special investigation into the company's organization and safety culture.

  • The regulator listed five "significant accidents" since December 2021. Three in Ohio, including last month's derailment, and another one last weekend.
  • Also on the list: On Tuesday morning, a conductor died on the job when he was struck by a dump truck as his train moved through a rail crossing, the company said.

State of play: Senators are also likely to question Shaw over environmental impacts. Despite assurances about the Ohio town's air and water from the Environmental Protection Agency, residents have reported feeling ill.

  • Shaw will be testifying along with representatives from the EPA and Ohio's environmental and sanitation regulators and first responders.
  • He'll likely talk about the company's ongoing commitment to recovery efforts in East Palestine and the surrounding area, company spokesman Thomas Crosson tells Axios.

The gist of the panel: “What did they do well? What did they do badly? What are they doing to address things that they botched?" is how Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chairman Tom Carper put it yesterday on CNBC.

Between the lines: Ohio's J.D. Vance (R) and Sherrod Brown (D), are scheduled to appear tomorrow, as well. They have become unlikely allies on rail safety in the wake of the accident.

  • Last week, they introduced a railway safety bill that's gaining traction in the Senate — although the House appears to be taking more of a wait-and-see approach.

Meanwhile: Norfolk Southern earlier this week announced new safety requirements in response to some of the issues highlighted in the NTSB's preliminary report, particularly around the spacing of the hot box detectors said to possibly be at issue in last month's accident.

  • All the big railroad companies said last week they would join a federally run confidential safety reporting system that they'd previously refused to use (and which the unions had asked them to join).

Worth noting: It's hard to fend off new regulations in the wake of a big accident, says Arthur Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell.

  • Safety regulation is often "done by catastrophe," — for example, after a high-profile plane crash or factory fire, Wheaton says.

The bottom line: Shaw's testimony and his company's actions are likely not the end of the response to the derailment.

Go deeper