NTSB launches special probe into Norfolk Southern safety practices

New investigation of corporate organization and safety culture comes in wake of fiery Ohio derailment last month

The National Transportation Safety Board announced Tuesday it is launching a special investigation into Norfolk Southern’s corporate organization and safety culture.

The new probe follows a national outcry over a fiery derailment on Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, that released toxic chemicals into the air, soil and water, causing fear and uncertainty among residents in the surrounding area. That February incident was already under investigation by the NTSB, and investigators have already pinpointed overheated bearings as a cause.

Tuesday’s announcement puts the Atlanta-based railroad under even greater scrutiny just as Norfolk Southern’s CEO is set to testify this week before the U.S. Senate.

“Given the number and significance of recent Norfolk Southern accidents, the NTSB also urges the company to take immediate action today to review and assess its safety practices, with the input of employees and others, and implement necessary changes to improve safety,” NTSB said in an announcement. “The continued safe operations of Norfolk Southern is vital to the United States. The NTSB is concerned that several organizational factors may be involved in the accidents, including safety culture.”

The NTSB said since December 2021, it has launched investigations into five significant accidents involving Norfolk Southern. Those include:

  • Dec. 8, 2021: An employee for National Salvage and Service Corporation assigned to work with a Norfolk Southern work team replacing track was killed when the operator of a spike machine reversed direction and struck the employee in Reed, Pennsylvania.
  • Dec. 13, 2022: A Norfolk Southern trainee conductor was killed, and another conductor was injured, when the lead locomotive of a Norfolk Southern freight train struck a steel angle iron protruding from a gondola car on another Norfolk Southern freight train that was stopped on an adjacent track in Bessemer, Alabama.
  • Feb. 3, 2023: A Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The derailment resulted in a significant fire and hazardous materials release.
  • March 4, 2023: A 2.55-mile-long Norfolk Southern freight train derailed near Springfield, Ohio.
  • March 7, 2023: A Norfolk Southern employee was killed during a movement in Cleveland, Ohio.

The agency said it would also look into an Oct. 28, 2022, derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in Sandusky, Ohio.

The NTSB said it will conduct an in-depth investigation into the safety practices and culture of the company but also said the company “should not wait to improve safety.”

After the NTSB pointed to overheated bearings as a cause of the East Palestine derailment, Norfolk Southern on Monday announced a plan to enhance its operational safety, including adding more hot bearing detectors along rail lines and working to develop and deploy new technology to detect problems.

“Reading the NTSB report makes it clear that meaningful safety improvements require a comprehensive industry effort that brings together railcar and tank car manufacturers, railcar owners and lessors, and the railroad companies,” said Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw in a written statement on Monday. “We are eager to help drive that effort and we are not waiting to take action.”

However, that did not forestall the NTSB’s announcement of a special investigation.

The Federal Railroad Administration also Tuesday announced its own probe, with plans to hold a special meeting of its Railroad Safety Advisory Committee focused on the East Palestine derailment, including discussion of potential safety improvements and actions by the committee.

In a statement Tuesday in the wake of the death of a conductor struck by a dump truck as his train moved through a rail crossing, Shaw said he “called together every member of our management team this afternoon to emphasize the urgency of finding new solutions.”

He said the company will hold employee safety briefings across its network on Wednesday.

“Moving forward, we are going to rebuild our safety culture from the ground up,” Shaw said. “We are going to invest more in safety. This is not who we are, it is not acceptable, and it will not continue.”