Reported by Ian Duncan for The Washington Post.
The National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday it is opening a “special investigation” into Norfolk Southern’s safety culture, pointing to five serious incidents involving the railroad — including last month’s derailment and chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio.
“The continued safe operations of Norfolk Southern is vital to the United States,” the board said in a statement. “The NTSB is concerned that several organizational factors may be involved in the accidents, including safety culture.”
Also, late Tuesday, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) said it had started a 60-day “supplemental safety assessment” of the railroad.
The most recent incident cited by the board and the agency happened in the early hours Tuesday, when a Norfolk Southern conductor was killed as a train moving through a road crossing at a steel works in Cleveland was struck by a dump truck.
In the wake of the worker’s death, Norfolk Southern chief executive Alan Shaw said the railroad would hold safety briefings for each employee Wednesday.
“I called together every member of our management team this afternoon to emphasize the urgency of finding new solutions,” Shaw said in a statement after visiting with the conductor’s colleagues. “Moving forward, we are going to rebuild our safety culture from the ground up. We are going to invest more in safety. This is not who we are, it is not acceptable, and it will not continue.”
The twin announcements ratchet up scrutiny on the railroad, which has been growing since the Feb. 3 East Palestine derailment that led to evacuations and drew the attention of regulators and lawmakers in Washington. The Transportation Department has been calling on the railroad industry to take steps to improve safety, issuing formal advisories in recent days. The NTSB’s announcement zeroed in on Norfolk Southern, urging the railroad to take “immediate action” to review its safety practices and make changes.
“The NTSB will conduct an in-depth investigation into the safety practices and culture of the company,” the board said. “At the same time, the company should not wait to improve safety.”
It is unusual for the NTSB to conduct an investigation looking at practices across a company. It typically investigates individual accidents.
The NTSB cannot issue new rules or take enforcement action against corporations, but it has broad investigative authority and often uses the findings of its work to develop safety recommendations for government agencies and private companies. Keith Holloway, a spokesman for the board, said the Norfolk Southern review could encompass the railroad’s staffing, training, equipment and procedures.
Labor leaders said the review was welcomed, coming at a time when they have been seeking to raise the alarm about safety concerns across the railroad industry.
“We mourn the loss of the Norfolk Southern conductor who was killed on the job today and hope that this investigation will lead to real reforms to create a safer industry for workers and communities like East Palestine,” said Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department, a labor organization.
The assessment by the FRA, an agency of the Department of Transportation, will take a broad look at the railroad’s operations, reviewing findings from a past audit and helping inform regulators’ oversight, the agency said.
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