East Palestine crash

Source: © Associated Press/Alamy Stock Photo

Controlled burning of vinyl chloride after the derailment released a huge plume of black smoke across the local area

In its final report on the February 2023 Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, US, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) confirmed that the incident, which spilled dangerous chemicals including vinyl chloride, was caused by a defective wheel bearing that overheated. The report also concludes that the decision by authorities to vent the vinyl chloride into a trench and burn it was ill-informed. The investigators determined that this decision was based on incomplete and misleading information provided by Norfolk Southern officials and contractors – something the company refutes. ‘The vent and burn procedure was not necessary to prevent a polymerisation induced explosion,’ the report concludes.

The report makes several recommendations to address safety issues, including that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration should require the placards used to identify hazardous materials be able to survive incidents and fires, noting that in this case they burned away, preventing emergency responders from immediately identifying hazards. It also highlights the failure of train monitoring systems to diagnose the hot wheel bearing in time for mitigation to prevent a derailment.

Shorter trains are safer

Meanwhile, US researchers recently determined that the chances of a train derailing increases the longer it gets. The team calculated that replacing two 50-car trains with one 100-car train raises the aggregate odds of derailment by 11%, even accounting for an overall decrease in the number of trains running.

In May, Norfolk Southern agreed to pay a $15 million civil penalty to cover the US Environmental Protection Agency’s expenses related to the derailment, and several million in cleanup and monitoring costs. Earlier this year, the company also reached a $600 million settlement to resolve a class-action lawsuit brought by local residents over health problems in the incident’s aftermath.