Norfolk's Southern AI train inspection technology aims reduce rail issues before a problem occurs
Norfolk Southern unveiled its first digital train inspection portal near Leentonia, along the same train tracks where the February 3 East Palestine derailment happened.
According to Norfolk Southern, trains will pass through the digital inspection portals and 38 highspeed cameras will photograph the railcars looking for any potential issues using 24-megapixel cameras and stadium lights, which will take up to 1,000 photos from all angles of the train cars. This will happen with trains moving up to 70 mph through the portals.
The Ohio portal is the first of 12 planned by Norfolk Southern in the next year to be operational, which according to the company's website has more than 19,500 miles of track in 22 states, all on the eastern half of the US. Other rail companies in the US have used railcar inspection portals to inspect railcars since 2019.
The press release states the portal project "aims to supercharge Norfolk Southern's safety infrastructure and inspection processes."
The company is calling the technology "cutting-edge," and the Railroad Workers United, an inter-union group of railroad workers, says it is encouraged by striving for additional safety but added that it does not replace the visual inspection by a person on the ground.
Matt Weaver, a founding member of Railroad Workers United and Legislative Director for the BMWED-IBT in Ohio said that the train inspection portals are a supplement to what rail workers are already doing, inspect railcars for defects or issues.
Weaver said that visual inspection may catch something that cameras may not detect.
"Human eyes on the equipment is very important. Guys can find things such as a leaking bearing or a bad journal [box]," Weaver said.
Connor Spielmaker, communications manager for Norfolk Southern said in a written response that "the portals provide data and analysis to further empower our people to keep our railroad safe, not replace them."
Spielmaker said the portals are being placed strategically to capture more than 90 percent of Norfolk Southern's rail traffic.
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw said, "We are a safe railroad, and we're going above and beyond to become even safer."
Weaver agreed that the AI portals might help the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen (BRC) which oversees the inspections of railcars and finding defects, saying it is important to avoid mistakes that may cause injuries or public safety issues.
Weaver said that time will ultimately see if the new AI technology can detect things that inspectors may not.
Norfolk Southern said these cameras would pick up "critical defects" for "immediate handling" but hadn't responded to the question as to whether that means the standard for when to stop the train would be changed before the publishing of this story.