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These Brothers represented BLET at the NTSB board meeting in East Palestine on June 25 (from left): Director of Political Affairs Brendan Sullivan; National VP & NLR Vince Verna; National VP and STF Chairman Randy Fannon, STF National Coordinator Brian Fransen, and STF Assistant Coordinator Shawn Lawton.

The NTSB met on June 25 to issue safety recommendations related to the February 3, 2023, Norfolk Southern derailment and hazardous materials release in East Palestine, Ohio. The NTSB concluded that a rail car’s defective wheel bearing caused the derailment.

“This report was about so much more than an overheated bearing,” BLET National President Eddie Hall said. “The key point is last year’s tragic derailment wasn’t a case of error by a train crew, it was a series of errors made by railroad management.”

The NTSB revealed that the decision to vent and burn hazmat tank cars after the incident was unnecessary. NTSB said NS and its contractors provided incomplete and misleading information to the local incident commander, which led to the vent and burn decision. NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy called Norfolk Southern’s actions “unconscionable” and “reprehensible,” noting that the railroad also sought to manufacture its own evidence and threatened the agency during the investigation.

NTSB investigators determined the tank cars were cooling and given enough time the hazardous contents could have been removed without the need for a vent a burn. But the vent and burn strategy was the quickest way to reopen the tracks. BLET Vice President Randy Fannon told the Associated Press: “When you’ve got 35 or 45 trains sitting and waiting to get through one area, no way to get around it. The railroad wants to get their main line back open as fast as possible.” Brother Fannon also spoke to Pittsburgh television station WTAE about the lack of communication between NS and first responders regarding the train manifest (at the 1:24 mark in this video

BLET President Hall blamed corporate greed. “PSR, the operating model adopted by NS and the nation’s other large railroads, contributed to this derailment.”

Based on its findings, NTSB has issued new safety recommendations to address the following factors that contributed to the severity of the derailment and the subsequent emergency response:

  • ​Failure of wayside monitoring systems to diagnose a hot wheel bearing in time for mitigation to prevent a derailment.
  • Inadequate emergency response training for volunteer first responders.
  • Hazardous materials placards that burned away, preventing emergency responders from immediately identifying hazards.
  • A lack of accurate, timely and comprehensive information passed to local incident commanders and state officials.
  • The continued use of DOT-111 tank cars in hazmat service.

The BLET and other safety advocates hope that now that the NTSB has had its say, Congress will finally advance much-needed rail safety legislation. President Hall said: “Congress, federal regulators and state legislators can lessen the risk by passing long overdue rail safety reforms, including the Railway Safety Act. Further delay is not acceptable to locomotive engineers and other railroaders, and it shouldn’t be tolerated by the residents of the communities served by these railroads.

NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy (left) led a panel of NTSB professionals who delivered their report at East Palestine high school on June 25. NTSB images