NTSB says critical for rail lines to fix before 'failure'
and seek a consensus for change
National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy and director of the NTSB's Office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Robert J. Hall offered an update from Thursday's investigation on the February 3 East Palestine toxic train derailment from Washington DC. It also spoke on rail safety.
Homendy started off the meeting by apologizing to the community, saying that this was 100 percent preventable. She said her department had finished its on-scene work Wednesday.
NTSB said that the wheel bearing was the cause of the derailment, however, the investigation will determine what caused the bearing failure, and who or what is ultimately responsible.
She said an investigative hearing will be set in East Palestine for this spring to gather the following:
- Inform public
- collect facts
- consensus for change
Investigative hearings are invited panelists to get facts, Homeny said.
The director said the derailment happened at car #23, with 149 rail cars and two engines.
The fire was started by the pellets inside the car and the overheated bearing.
Thursday, The National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report on the cause of the hazardous material release and derailment in the Valley.
According to the report, the train passed through three railside hot-bearing detectors, beginning approximately 30 miles to the west and just east of the village, which showed the 23rd car wheel bearing rapidly rose in temperature, from 38 degrees F and in 11 miles, had increased to 103 degrees. An audible alert went off at the third detector, where the temperature was detected as critical. The railroad industry sets the threshold and varies by rail line.
The director said her department will examine and see if this needs to be changed, citing that it is one of the investigation's priorities.
The rail employees attempted to stop the train, and according to the report, observed fire and smoke, and alerted the dispatch of a potential derailment. The crew uncoupled the engine from the railcars and moved about 1 mile from the area.
NTSB has not identified any track or hot-bearing detector issues but is still investigating.
NTSB does not believe the crew did anything wrong, but as train decelerated for a train ahead of it on the track, the derailment happened, and the emergency train braking system engaged.
Homendy said that 38 cars derailed, and the fire began, and damaged an additional 12 cars. Five cars hauling hazardous materials were located near car 23, cars 25 through 28 and car 152, carrying more than 215,000 pounds of vinyl chloride.
Homendy said that NTSB had no role in emptying and burning the vinyl chloride for the cars, stating the Federal Railroad Administration has guidance, including the decision to vent and burn. Still, she said that her department will evaluate whether the burn was carried out according to that guidance and if that guidance needs to be updated.
The train included 20 hazmat cars, transporting the liquids, were placarded, but were plastic and melted off the cars. Homnedy said the department will review other options, as the placards tell emergency responders what they are dealing with and the dangers.
NTSB said it will be focused on the wheelset and the bearing during its investigation, stating that roller sets have a life between 100,000 to 300,000 miles.
Homendy said that the potential for failure with an overheated roller bearing includes fatigue cracking, water damage, mechanical damage, a loose bearing or a wheel defect, which all will be investigated.
NTSB will also look at railcar design and maintenance practices by Norfolk Southern, their inspection procedures, and the history of car #23 Homedy added.
Regulations require that tanker cars must be able to be cooled for 100 minutes, however, the fire lasted well beyond that time frame, and then actually hurt the situation by preventing the cars from cooling the director told reporters.
DOT 111 tanker cars will also be part of the investigation, and Norfolk Southern's railside detectors and the spacing of those detectors.
Another consideration will be whether data from the detectors need to be monitored in real-time by the operators and the temperature thresholds for action by the railroads in overheated bearings and response time. Homendy said this also applies to other rail lines as well.
Homendy said it would also look at how EMS responds and alerts citizens to a crisis, before and after.
She said an informed public could be prepared if notified of hazmat cards, dates, and times, and "deserve to know" if they live near a hazmat route, and what is needed to be done in case of an accident.
Homendy said that her department is still in the fact-finding phase of its investigation, stating they know what derailed the train, but now is the time to see what caused the crash. The fact-finding will take several months to work through, and then will go into the public docket. The analysis phase will start 12 to 18 months before all is completed.
One of the questions asked concerned by the length and weight of the train, which was 9,309 feet long, 17,977 tons in weight, Homedy said that all trains with hazardous chemicals concern her.