The discovery of loose wheels adds to Norfolk Southern’s safety concerns


As Norfolk Southern worked to clean up the mess from a derailment in Springfield, Ohio, last weekend, it discovered an urgent new problem: Some of its new rail cars had loose wheels, increasing the risk of derailment.

The railroad said it identified cases in which the wheels were moving in unusual ways, after alerting the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Administration to the problem.

“We acted quickly,” Norfolk Southern said in a statement late Thursday. “We have issued orders to remove these cars from service until their wheels can be replaced, and we have taken steps to remove this specific model and series from service until they can be fully inspected.”

Earlier on Thursday, the Association of American Railways had warned the rest of the industry to be on the lookout for the cars, which are made to carry steel in a spiral, and pull from use. About 675 cars assembled since August could be affected, the association said.

Images from mid-February Norfolk Southern derailment in Van Buren Township, Michigan, also shows derailed cars bearing identification numbers that match those in the AAR advisory as a potential risk. The railroad confirmed that the listed cars were on the derailed train, but said they had been inspected and “did not have the problem discovered in the Springfield derailment wreck.”

It could be months before a cause of the Springfield derailment is determined, but the discovery of the wheel problem adds to Norfolk Southern’s safety concerns as it faces a pair of new investigations by the NTSB and FRA. Congress brought in its chief executive this past week to testify about his response to the fiery derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

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Norfolk Southern has pledged to strengthen its safety culture and install new technology designed to prevent derailments. But hours before CEO Alan Shaw assured members of a Senate committee Thursday that his company was operating safely, another of his trains derailed in Alabama.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) grilled Shaw about how many derailments it would take for Norfolk Southern to take action. She pointed to at least 20 involving releases of hazardous materials since 2015.

“You’re saying you’re going to learn from No. 20,” Stabenow said. “What did you learn from a 19? What did you learn from a 1 or a 5? Or a 10 or a 15?”

The problem of the free wheel bears similarities with the one that led regulators to pull trains from the Metrorail system of the Washington region after a derailment in 2021. Metro is spending 55 million dollars to repair the wheels of these cars.

Allan M. Zarembski, director of the Railroad Engineering and Safety Program at the University of Delaware, said that such a defect is rare and that it was reasonable for the railroad industry to take action against the cars of goods.

“Generally, if there’s a loose wheel, it means the wheel probably wasn’t mounted on the axle hub,” Zarembski said.

He said that if the wheels are spread, which can cause them to roll higher on the rails, while if the wheels are closer, they can drop between the rails.

AAR said the cars in question refer back to Canadian manufacturer National Steel Car. The company said in a statement Friday that it had returned records to Norfolk Southern and AAR related to three pairs of wheels on two cars that derailed in Springfield.

“We await the results of the NTSB investigation and will continue to cooperate fully,” the statement said.

The NTSB typically investigates individual incidents, but this week it announced it has taken the unusual step of launching a “special investigation” at Norfolk Southern, citing a series of incidents in recent months, including three that have left railroad workers dead. .

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Asked about the potential for a connection between the Springfield and Van Buren derailments, Keith Holloway, a council spokesman, said the special investigation could include looking for correlations between the various incidents.

“Investigators will go where the evidence leads,” he said.

Labor unions have long warned about safety in the industry as the railways have sought to cut jobs and boost efficiency. Mark Wallace, vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said more frequent inspections could identify the problem before cars are involved in a derailment.

A number of the high-profile incidents involving Norfolk Southern have occurred in Ohio, including an Oct. 8 derailment in Sandusky and the death of a driver in a collision at a steel mill in Cleveland this week.

Ohio has an outstanding role in the railway industry, ranked third its number of track miles between states and in the Top 10 in measures of transportation volume tracked by AAR. Zarembski said serious derailments are rare, making it difficult to draw conclusions about any pattern.

“We’re looking at low-probability statistical events,” he said.

However, faced with the indignation of residents in East Palestine, who have asked if their air and water are safe after the derailment, Ohio senators have become leading voices to improve safety in the industry .

Testifying before Shaw on Thursday, Senator JD Vance (R-Ohio) asked his fellow Republicans to support the bipartisan rail safety legislation he introduced with Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

“Are we doing the bidding of a massive industry that’s in bed with big government,” Vance said, “or are we doing the bidding of the people who elected us to the Senate and Congress in the first place?”

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