Mar 11, 2023 - Economy

Hundreds of railcars ordered removed from service due to derailment risk

Norfolk Southerns rail line runs directly through East Palestine, Ohio. Photo: Rebecca Kiger for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Train companies have been warned to remove certain cars from service after Norfolk Southern discovered loose wheels on railcars during the cleanup of last weekend's derailment in Ohio.

Why it matters: The discovery adds to Norfolk Southern’s safety troubles and headaches amid multiple investigations from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Administration.

Driving the news: After Norfolk's discovery, the Association of American Railroads issued an advisory to stop using steel coil cars with those wheels due to "an increased risk of an out of gage derailment."

  • "This is an uncommon defect that can create horizontal movement in the car as it travels down the track and could lead to a derailment," AAR spokeswoman Jessica Kahanek told Axios.
  • 675 cars were initially identified and impacted by the advisory, she said.
  • The cars should not be used or interchanged "until those wheel sets can be replaced," Kahanek said.
  • "This urgent action was a voluntary, proactive and necessary step aimed at ensuring equipment health and integrity," she added.

Norfolk Southern said Thursday that it informed the NTSB and FRA about the problem with the wheels.

  • “We acted swiftly,” Norfolk Southern said in a statement. “We issued orders to remove these cars from service until their wheelsets could be replaced, and we have taken steps to remove this specific model and series from service until they can be fully inspected.”

What they're saying: Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw testified before Congress on Thursday, hours before the Alabama derailment.

  • "We are committed to making the rail industry safer," he said. "We will analyze and address the NTSB’s investigation results when they are available, but we are not waiting to act."

Yes, but: Rail workers and union leaders told Fortune that there has been "underinvestment, cost-cutting, and pushback against safety protocols" throughout the railroad industry in recent years.

  • A union representing Norfolk Southern warned federal regulators months ago that the company disregarded its own safety rules, per Bloomberg.
  • The Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, a union that handles construction work on lines warned that it doesn't have enough workers to install new safety measures following the two Ohio derailments.
  • Railroad union members nearly went on strike last year as workers said staffing shortages and scheduling policies made it difficult for them to take time off.

The big picture: Norfolk Southern has faced heavy criticism over the recent series of derailments in Ohio and Alabama. Only the first derailment, near East Palestine, Ohio, involved hazardous materials.

  • The official cause for all three derailments is still under investigation.
  • The railroad operator has pledged to "revamp its safety culture and install new technology designed to prevent derailments," per the Washington Post.

Go deeper: Norfolk Southern train derails in Alabama, third in several weeks

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