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Derailment train video comes up short, official tells hearing

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw testifies before a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on improving rail safety in response to the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 22, 2023. Other witnesses are, from left, National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy; Ohio Western Reserve Joint Fire District Chief David Comstock; Ohio State SMART-TD Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker.

The locomotive on the Norfolk Southern train that had a mass derailment in East Palestine was “put immediately back into service,” and all but 20 minutes of video from it right before and after the accident is gone, the National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman testified at a Senate committee hearing in Washington.

NTSB Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy said Norfolk Southern video on the derailed train, which had an inward facing camera, “was overwritten. That means the data only provided about 15 minutes of video before the derailment and five minutes after the derailment.”

She testified during Wednesday’s hearing by the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

The NTSB is investigating the East Palestine derailment that occurred Feb. 3 after a wheel bearing overheated.

Homendy called for changing the video policy to be in line with requirements for Amtrak and commuter railroads, which are required to maintain 12 hours of nonstop video, because it is vital to investigations.

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas and ranking Republican on the committee, said he was shocked when he heard what Homendy said.

“Any time there is a locomotive involved in a serious derailment, it is lunacy that video is not preserved and that locomotive is put into alternative service,” he said. “I’m confident we can get unanimity from this committee on that.”

Asked about the minimal video from the derailment, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw said his company “followed protocols.”

Homendy also asked that the definition of high-hazard flammable trains be expanded to include “a broader array” of hazardous materials. The Norfolk Southern train that derailed Feb. 3 in East Palestine releasing toxic materials into the environment does not fall under that category.

Two days after the East Palestine derailment, Norfolk Southern decided to control explode five cars containing vinyl chloride, a toxic chemical, concerned that it would probably explode and pose a life-threatening danger, sending shrapnel into the air and traveling for almost a mile.

Homendy asked Congress to consider requiring rail companies to provide information on the chemicals on trains going through communities and eliminate the current threshold of tank cars carrying hazardous materials to 20 in a row or 35 dispersed throughout a train.

Wednesday’s committee hearing, titled “Improving Rail Safety in Response to the East Palestine Derailment,” lasted 3 1/2 hours.

OTHERS TESTIFYING

Providing testimony, in addition to Homendy and Shaw, were Gov. Mike DeWine; Misti Allison, an East Palestine resident; Ian Jefferies, CEO of the Association of American Railroads; David “Chip” Comstock, chief of the Western Reserve Joint Fire District in Poland; Clyde Whitaker, legislative director for the Ohio State SMART-TD (Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers’ Transportation Division); and U.S. Sens. J.D. Vance, R-Cincinnati, and Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland.

The two Ohio senators are sponsoring the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023 that would put safeguards in place to improve rail safety.

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works had a March 9 hearing on the East Palestine derailment.

Vance, a Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee member, asked about an average Norfolk Southern rail inspector spending 30 seconds inspecting one side of a rail car before it travels.

Whitaker said that a visual inspection “is one of the most important aspects” of examining a rail car for safety and that it should take at least three minutes per side.

Jefferies said he couldn’t “tell you what the right time is,” but upon questioning from Vance agreed that “30 seconds doesn’t seem like a long time to do an in-depth inspection.”

The bill, proposed by Vance and Brown, would enhance safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials, require railroads to create disaster plans, tell emergency response commissions what hazardous materials are going through their states, establish requirements for wayside defect detectors, create a permanent requirement for railroads to operate with at least two-person crews and increase fines for wrongdoing by rail carriers.

DeWine said he backed the Senate bill as well as a U.S. House bill introduced last week that has several similarities.

“No other community should ever have to go through this, and so there must be a great sense of urgency to make our railways safer,” the governor said.

While repeatedly declining to answer direct questions about objections Shaw has to the bill, he said there were a number of provisions he backs.

That includes “measures with the potential for meaningful improvement, such as funding additional training, better advanced notification, accelerating the phase out of older tank cars and much more,” he said.

Shaw said Norfolk Southern already has installed 200 additional wayside defect detectors since the derailment.

Jefferies said his organization, the main lobbying group of the freight rail industry, hasn’t taken a position on the Vance-Brown bill.

“Frankly, there’s a feasible path on almost every provision in the bill. Your definition of feasible and mine may not be the same,” Jefferies said with a laugh.

Asked by U.S. Sen Ed Markey, D-Mass., about the two-person crew minimum, Shaw said, “We’re not aware of any data that links crew size with safety.”

Whitaker said: “If the railroads had it their way — down to a one-person crew — and they reduced the conductor position to ground-based, meaning a person at a pickup truck driving to the site, that puts engineers in danger. It also puts the response time and the assessment of the issue of danger.”

The train that derailed in East Palestine had a three-person crew, and the House bill doesn’t require a two-person minimum.

Shaw said that Norfolk Southern has provided $24 million to East Palestine and the surrounding communities and plans to spend more.

He also said Norfolk Southern is “in the planning stages of developing a long-term medical compensation fund, a property value assurance program, a longer-term water testing program.”

Shaw said: “Norfolk Southern is here for the long haul, and we won’t be finished until we make it right.”

But Shaw did not give specifics.

Brown, D-Cleveland, said, “We’ve heard Mr. Shaw say that Norfolk Southern is going to make it right in East Palestine and do right by the community. Sen. Vance and I are going to make sure that East Palestine is not forgotten, not next week, not in two years, not ever. Doing right by the community must include making sure more accidents don’t happen and that will only occur if we take clear, common-sense steps to make our railways safer.”

Vance said: “So the most outrageous and the most ridiculous thing that I’ve heard from industry groups and other activists in response to this bill is that it’s somehow a kind of Bolshevism to require the railways to engage in proper safety standards, that this bill is a big-government solution to the railway safety problem. It is funny that that complaint comes from a group that came before this body three months ago begging for a bailout from their labor dispute.”

Allison, the East Palestine resident, said she was there “to put a face on this disaster. This isn’t just a political issue, it is a people issue.”

The derailment “has put a scarlet letter on our town,” and after Norfolk Southern decided to have a controlled explosion of five rail cars with vinyl chloride in them, it “was like a bomb went off” that “releases dangerous chemicals. When burned, these chemicals never go away.”

Allison said the state and federal governments tell the community that the environment is safe, but she questions that.

“Who do we trust?” she said.

dskolnick@vindy.com

dskolnick@tribtoday.com

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