COLUMBIANA COUNTY, Ohio (WKBN) – The First News team has been digging into every aspect of the East Palestine train derailment.
WKBN digital reporter Jennifer Rodriguez and StormTeam 27 Meteorologist Ryan Halicki spent several weeks working to locate the hot bearing detectors along the rail line running through East Palestine and even discovered changes made after they began asking questions.
A hot-bearing detector is a device used on railroads to detect axle and signal problems as well as temperature increases in the wheel bearing. They can act as warning devices for potential train derailments due to heated bearing conditions.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was probing an overheated bearing as a potential cause of the East Palestine train derailment on Feb. 3.
“But I can tell you this much, this was 100 percent preventable,” said NTSB chairwoman Jennifer Homendy during a news conference in February.
Mile-marker 79.9 on the line in Sebring is the location of the first hot-bearing detector referenced in the NTSB preliminary report. When the train that derailed passed over that detector, the bearing believed to have caused the derailment was 38 degrees above air temperature, not a concern yet.
From Sebring, the train continued toward Salem, where the first report of sparks or fire is recorded on surveillance video. The Salem hot bearing detector showed changes.
Milepost 69.01 along the Norfolk Southern line in Salem is the location of a second hot-bearing detector referenced in the NTSB preliminary report. When the train reached this detector, the temperature of the bearing in question rose to 103 degrees above the air temperature.
Between the Sebring detector and this one, the bearing temperature increased by 65 degrees, but it was still below inspection criteria. From this point, roughly 20 miles are traveled before the next detector is passed.
The train continued to East Palestine. Through this stretch, cameras capture sparks or fire continuing under the train. But there were no other hot-bearing detectors until the train reached East Palestine.
Behind the East Palestine Napa Auto Parts store is the hot-bearing detector at milepost 49.81. This is 20 miles from the last detector in Salem. When rail car 23 passes over this detector, the temperature of the bearing in question skyrocketed to 253 degrees above the air temperature.
That’s an increase in temperature of 150 degrees. At this point, the bearing temperature has surpassed Norfolk Southern’s critical threshold by 53 degrees, according to the NTSB preliminary report. At 200 degrees above the air temperature, Norfolk Southern criteria stipulate the car is to be “set out,” presumably for inspection.
So was there a way to prevent this?
WKBN’s research found references to a different type of sensor called a dragging equipment detector just outside of Columbiana. This is within the 20-mile stretch where no hot-bearing detector was reported.
WKBN could see the dragging equipment detector on Google street view. But on March 1, when a reporter went to that location, there was nothing there.
WKBN’s research showed dragging equipment detectors can be combined with hot-bearing detectors.
WKBN reached out to Norfolk Southern several times asking why the equipment was removed and whether there was ever a hot-bearing detector in this location. Thursday evening, we received the following response from Sr. Communications Manager Connor Spielmaker.
“The dragging equipment detector you reference was leftover equipment from a previous railroad that operated that line, and was likely removed years ago. Recently, as part of our safety push to reduce the average distances between our wayside detectors on our network, a hot bearing detector and a dragging equipment detector were installed in the area. All of Norfolk Southern’s wayside detectors include both types of sensors.”
When we returned to the location 20 days later, new equipment was there. A dragging equipment detector and a hot-bearing detector were installed on the rail line.
The question remains: Had there been a detector there at that time, would defects have been caught before the train derailed?
The average temperature increase of the bearing between Sebring to East Palestine was approximately seven degrees per mile. At the location of the new sensor, assuming temperature increases followed that average, the temperature would have been around 160 degrees above the air temperature. Norfolk Southern’s policy calls for an inspection of a hot bearing at 170 degrees.
Ohio Senators Sherrod Brown and JD Vance, along with Pennsylvania Senators John Fetterman and Bob Casey, introduced a bill called the Railway Safety Act of 2023. Section five of that bill calls for requiring hot bearing detectors to be placed every 10 miles along tracks carrying hazardous materials.
Congressman Bill Johnson has also introduced a bill called the Reducing Accidents in Locomotives, or RAIL Act, calling for the same every 10-mile requirement. Neither bill has been brought to the floor for a vote yet.