AN investigation by the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) remains underway after 50 wagons of a Norfolk Southern (NS) train carrying vinyl chloride and other freight derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, at approximately 20.54 on February 3, causing a massive fire that forced the evacuation of a 7.7km2 area.

The train was operating from Madison, Illinois, to Conway Yard near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. No injuries to crew, residents or first responders were reported, and full service has since been restored by NS.

The cause of the accident, which the NTSB says was mechanically related, remains under investigation.

NS said 20 of the more than 100 wagons making up the train were classified as carrying hazardous materials. NTSB said 11 pressure tank cars carrying hazardous materials derailed, five of which were carrying vinyl chloride.

Norfolk Southern Fort Wayne Line at East Palestine, Ohio. OpenRailwayMap image.

At a February 5 news conference, NTSB said a mechanical problem with a wagon axle caused the derailment. NTSB member, Mr Michael Graham, said the three-member train crew received a detector alert about the mechanical defect “shortly before the derailment.” He said investigators identified the exact “point of derailment,” but did not disclose the location.

IRJ sister publication Railway Age has learned that the derailment probably occurred due to a combination of factors and unfortunate timing. The train passed a lineside hotbox detector that reported no defects. Shortly after that, a wheel bearing started to overheat, which in turn caused an axle to severely overheat.

This eventually resulted in an axle failure that occurred a few moments after the train had passed a second hotbox detector that triggered a crew alert. The driver immediately applied the brakes, but the axle had already failed, and the train derailed.

“As a result of the derailment, 38 cars derailed and a fire ensued that damaged an additional 12 cars,” an NTSB statement released on February 14 said. “NTSB investigators have identified and examined the wagon that initiated the derailment. Surveillance video from a residence showed what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment. The wheelset from the suspected wagon has been collected as evidence for metallurgical examination. The suspected overheated wheel bearing has been collected and will be examined by engineers from the NTSB Materials Laboratory in Washington, DC.

“The tank cars are currently being decontaminated. Once the process is complete, NTSB investigators will return to Ohio to complete a thorough examination of the tank cars.

“The vinyl chloride tank car top fittings, including the relief valves, were removed and secured in a locked intermodal container pending an NTSB examination. Once the fittings are examined by NTSB investigators, they will be shipped to Texas for testing, which will be conducted under the direction of the NTSB.

“NTSB has obtained locomotive event recorder data, forward- and inward-facing image recording data and wayside defect detector data. NTSB investigators continue to review documentation, event recorder data and perform interviews. A preliminary report is expected to be published in two weeks.”

On February 14 NS said it was “continuing to work with local, state and federal leaders and the community affected by the derailment.” It added: “both main lines were restored to service on February 7, after our engineering team and contractors worked to quickly clear the site and lay down new infrastructure. NS continues to make progress in two key areas: addressing the backlog of traffic; and getting power and crews back in cycle. As we continue to do so, customers will see a positive reflection of these efforts in the status of their shipments.”

NS immediately established a Family Assistance Centre to address the needs of the community and support those directly affected by the accident. Additionally, it railway supported the efforts of the American Red Cross and their temporary community shelters with a $US 25,000 donation.”

NS is also setting up a $US 1m charitable fund “to be available immediately as one component of its planned support for the community of East Palestine, Ohio.”