|‘There used to be something called ‘maintenance’’|
One union of rail workers has questioned declining maintenance standards following the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, which forced the evacuation of the 5,000-person town earlier this month.
A device that can play a role in preventing derailments is the wayside hot-box detector. It uses infrared sensors to detect bearings, axles or other components of a rail car that are overheating, then uses radio signals to flag rail crews of any overheated components.
The rail car that initiated the derailment had an overheated wheel bearing, according to a Tuesday report from the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB is still investigating the cause of the derailment and will publish a preliminary report in two weeks.
Wayside hot-box detectors are typically placed every 25 miles along a railroad, according to a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) report. Their use has contributed to a 59% decrease in train accidents caused by axle- and bearing-related factors since 1990, according to a 2017 Association of American Railroads study.
Declining head counts have led to these mechanisms receiving less preventative maintenance, according to an official from the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen union.
The FRA has no regulations requiring the use or maintenance of hot-box detectors.
A hot-box detector in East Palestine notified the crew moments before the train derailed, according to the NTSB’s report.
It’s unclear if any hot-box detector prior to East Palestine notified crews. A surveillance video shared on Facebook from an industrial facility in Salem, Ohio, about 20 miles from East Palestine, suggests the train’s axle was already on fire.
Norfolk Southern did not respond to a request for comment, and the FRA declined to comment on the record.
Specialized signalmen called “electronic leaders” specialize in maintaining devices like hot-box detectors. As recently as three years ago, Norfolk Southern employed five electronic leaders in the area of its rail network that includes East Palestine. Today, it employs zero, according to Christopher Hand, director of research at the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen.
The area in question is Eastern Region North – Division B, shown in red on the map. It runs east to west from Mansfield, Ohio, to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and north to south from Morgantown, West Virginia, to Astabula, Ohio. It also includes rail track in Pittsburgh, as well as Youngstown, Ohio.