NTSB said that the train was traveling about 47 miles per hour at the time of the derailment. That is about 3 miles per hour below the authorized speed of 50 miles per hour.
A dynamic brake application was operating as the train passed a defect detector on the east side of East Palestine at milepost 49.81 that transmitted a critical audible alarm message instructing the crew to slow and stop the train to inspect a hot axle.
In addition, the train passed three system check systems that register temperature. An axle that is in question for overheating on Car 23 registered 38 degrees above ambient temperature at the 79.9 mile post. At the next one, it registered 103 degrees above ambient; and at the third, it registered 253 degrees above ambient.
NTSB said that after the train stopped, the crew observed fire and smoke and notified the Cleveland East dispatcher of a possible derailment. With dispatcher authorization, the crew applied handbrakes to the two railcars at the head of the train, uncoupled the head-end locomotives, and moved the locomotives about 1 mile from the uncoupled railcars. Responders arrived at the derailment site and began response efforts.
Investigators are paying close attention to roller bearings and the wheel set on the derailment car. The roller bearing can last 100,000 to 300,000 miles.
“It’s absolutely critical for p problems to be identified and addressed early so these aren’t run until failure,” said NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy during a press conference Thursday from Washington, D.C.
Surveillance video from a local residence showed what appeared to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment.
“The warning threshold is set by railroads, and again it varies by railroad,” Homendy said. “We’re going to look at that and see if that threshold should change. That is going to be one of our priorities in this investigation.”
The wheel bearing and affected wheelset have been collected as evidence and will be examined by the NTSB. The vinyl chloride tank car top fittings, including the relief valves, were also removed and examined by the NTSB on scene. The top fittings will be shipped to Texas for testing.
“I am so sorry for the traumatic event you are going through. It’s devastating. This was 100% preventable. Every event we investigate is preventable. Know that the NTSB has one goal, and that is safety and making sure this never happens again.”
Homendy said if the NTSB finds a safety issue that needs to be addressed immediately, it will a safety recommendation. They will also conduct “a rare” investigative field hearing in the spring.
‘We don’t have investigative field hearings often,” Homendy said. She added that the community will be involved in that hearing.
Here are classification details of the derailment: (Source: NTSB)
- Derailment happened Feb. 3, 2023, at 8:54 p.m.
- It was a Norfolk Southern general merchandise freight train 32N.
- The train derailed on track 1 in East Palestine.
- Thirty-eight rail cars derailed and a fire ensued which damaged an additional 12 cars.
- There were a total of 20 hazardous materials cars in the train consist – 11 of which derailed.
- A complete list of what the cars were carrying is available online.
- NTSB says video shows what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment.
Homendy said that the hazardous material placards on the train were made of plastic and melted during the fire and that her agency is looking into that issue and how to better prepare for that. They will also look at railcar design and prior accidents involving car number 23 and the wheelset where the derailment is believed to have occurred.
A controlled release of a car carrying vinyl chloride was conducted to prevent an explosion following the derailment. This action is not part of the NTSB investigation, but they will determine if the “vent and burn” was part of guidance.
“As part of our investigation, we will evaluate whether the vent and burn was carried out according to that guidance and whether that guidance needs to be updated,” she said.
Homendy said that residents need to be aware if they live or work near a hazmat route, how to recognize and respond to an emergency, what protective action to take and how to notify authorities. She said they will work on how to best do that during the investigation.
She said that she is dismayed at the politics that has surrounded this event and is perplexed as to why that is happening.
“Enough with the politics on this. This is a community that is suffering. This is about addressing their needs and their concerns. I don’t care about the politics. I care about finding out why this happened. Politics is not part of our investigative process,” she said.
The investigation to find a probable cause or contributory case will take 12 to 18 months.
Homendy added that NTSB found no evidence the crew did anything wrong. There were three people on board and one of them was a trainee.