Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

After three Ohio accidents in less than five weeks, NTSB will examine the "safety culture" at Norfolk Southern

A view of the scene in East Palestine, Ohio, in late February as the cleanup continues at the site of a Norfolk Southern freight train derailment.
Matt Freed
A view of the scene in East Palestine, Ohio, in late February as the cleanup continues at the site of a Norfolk Southern freight train derailment.

Federal investigators are opening a wide-ranging investigation into one of the nation’s biggest railroads following a fiery derailment on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border last month and several other accidents involving Norfolk Southern, including the death of a train conductor Tuesday.

The National Transportation Safety Board said on Tuesday it will begin a broad look at the company's safety culture — the first such investigation within the rail industry since 2014. The NTSB said it has sent investigation teams to look into five significant accidents involving Norfolk Southern since December 2021.

The agency also urged the company to take immediate action to review and assess its safety practices.

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw pledged to hold a series of companywide safety meetings Wednesday — one day ahead of when he is scheduled to testify in Congress at a hearing on the East Palestine derailment.

“Moving forward, we are going to rebuild our safety culture from the ground up,” he said in a statement. “We are going to invest more in safety. This is not who we are, it is not acceptable, and it will not continue.”

In response to the Ohio derailment, the railroad on Monday announced plans to improve the use of detectors placed along railroad tracks to spot overheating bearings and other problems.

Investigators with the NTSB said the crew operating the train that derailed Feb. 3 outside East Palestine, Ohio, got a warning from such a detector but couldn’t stop the train before more than three dozen cars came off the tracks and caught fire.

Half of the town of about 5,000 people had to evacuate for days when responders intentionally burned toxic chemicals in some of the derailed cars to prevent an uncontrolled explosion, leaving residents with lingering health concerns. Government officials say tests haven’t found dangerous levels of chemicals in the air or water in the area.

Within the industry, Norfolk Southern has had a strong reputation for being a safe railroad over the years, said Christopher Barkan, director of the Rail Transportation and Engineering Center at the University of Illinois.

Federal Railroad Administration statistics show accidents involving Norfolk Southern is down since 2019, but the rate of accidents is up over the past decade. The 119 derailments involving Norfolk Southern last year was the lowest number in the last decade. Industrywide, there were more than 1,000 derailments last year.