News & Reviews News Wire Class I railroads announce new hot bearing safety measures in wake of East Palestine derailment

Class I railroads announce new hot bearing safety measures in wake of East Palestine derailment

By Bill Stephens | March 8, 2023

Railroads will add 1,000 additional detectors this year and develop new standards

Email Newsletter

Get the newest photos, videos, stories, and more from brands. Sign-up for email today!

Hot box and dragging equipment detector.
A hotbox and dragging equipment detector on the Union Pacific near East Bernard, Texas. Tom Kline

WASHINGTON — Class I railroads are taking several steps to improve their wayside detection systems — including installing an additional 1,000 hot bearing detectors this year — in the aftermath of the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

The Association of American Railroads announced a multi-step safety plan this morning, a day before NS CEO Alan Shaw is scheduled to appear at a Senate committee hearing regarding the East Palestine wreck, which spilled toxic chemicals and forced a partial evacuation of the town.

Investigators have said a catastrophic bearing failure caused the derailment just moments after a hotbox detector alerted the crew. The ill-fated merchandise train 32N passed two other hotbox detectors that showed increasing bearing temperatures on the 23rd car in the train. But the temperatures recorded on the first two detectors never reached Norfolk Southern’s threshold for triggering an alarm.

“Healthy railroads are essential to the U.S. economy, and consistently and reliably safe operations are essential to healthy railroads,” AAR CEO Ian Jefferies said in a statement. “Our long history of voluntarily employing safety measures that go above and beyond federal requirements proves our belief in that principle. While we will continue to follow the National Transportation Safety Board’s ongoing investigation in Ohio closely and recognize its deliberate, methodical, and fact-based approach, railroads are committed to taking appropriate steps now.”

All Class I railroads have agreed to install additional hot bearing detectors across their key routes, with the goal of achieving average spacing of 15 miles, except if the route is equipped with acoustic bearing detection capability or other similar technology.

The installation of 1,000 additional detectors is roughly a 17% increase over the 6,000 or so currently in service, according to Federal Railroad Administration data. The current average hot box detector spacing is 25 miles, according to the FRA.

Defect detectors have been in the spotlight after the East Palestine derailment. The Rail Safety Act of 2023, which was introduced in the Senate this month, calls for hotbox detectors to be spaced every 10 miles. The FRA issued a safety advisory last month covering hotbox detectors and how railroads use detector data and respond to detector alarms.

Under the AAR plan announced today, a route containing acoustic bearing detection capability or other similar technology will maintain maximum hot bearing detector spacing not to exceed 20 miles where practical due to terrain and operating conditions.

In addition, inoperative hotbox detectors on key routes will generate critical incident tickets and be prioritized for repair.

The Class I railroads also committed to stopping trains and inspecting bearings whenever the temperature reading from an hotbox detector exceeds 170 degrees above ambient temperature. This creates a new industry standard.

The railroads also will work to develop a standard for trend analysis of hot bearing detector readings. Analysis of trending data from multiple detectors can reveal a bearing problem before a temperature threshold is reached. All of the Class I railroads currently use trend analysis, but they don’t analyze the data in the same way. The railroads are reviewing the programs they use and have set a March 31 deadline to make recommendations on the use of trend analysis. They’ll also expand sharing of trend analysis data.

The AAR says the industry also will take steps to broaden the use of the AskRail app, which provides first responders with real-time information about the contents of every car in a train and the safe handling of those contents in the event of an accident.

The AAR’s Tank Car Committee is accelerating the work of a task force that has been investigating the use of heat-resistant gaskets for tanks transporting flammable liquid. The task force, which includes railroads, equipment owners, and tank car manufacturers, will expand its scope to consider all fire performance improvements to service equipment.

The NTSB is “looking closely” at aluminum protective covers on tank cars involved in the East Palestine derailment, over concerns those covers melted on three of the cars, which may have hampered the performance of pressure relief devices.

Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation have both previously announced plans to improve their wayside detectors by reducing spacing along their core mainline routes.

NS will add about 200 hot box detectors to its network at locations where the spacing between existing detectors is more than 15 miles. Currently, the average spacing on core NS main lines is 13.9 miles. The first new detector will be installed on the western approach to East Palestine, where there’s a 19.2-mile gap between detectors on the Fort Wayne Line.

NS also says it will deploy 13 additional acoustic bearing detectors, which analyze the sound signature of vibration inside the axle and can identify potential problems that a visual inspection could not. The railroad currently has five acoustic bearing detectors in service.

CSX will install 53 additional hot bearing detectors across its system this year to reduce the average spacing of the wayside defect detectors to 14.3 miles on key main line routes and 14.9 miles on other lines. The detectors are currently spaced an average of 15.1 miles along key routes and 16.2 miles overall on CSX’s network.

CSX also is installing a dozen more acoustic bearing detectors and upgrading technology on hot bearing detectors. The railroad currently has nine acoustic bearing detectors in place.

Last week AAR released data showing that railroads are safe and getting safer. This is especially true for hazardous material transportation, where the accident rate is down 78% since 2000. Mainline accidents are down 44% in that same period and reached an all-time low in 2022.

“Rail is indisputably the safest way to move dangerous commodities,” Jefferies said. “Yet we fully appreciate that these data do not comfort the residents of East Palestine and that public trust must be restored through action. Until we achieve our goal of zero, we will maintain our fierce commitment to getting there.”

2 thoughts on “Class I railroads announce new hot bearing safety measures in wake of East Palestine derailment

  1. Back in the early 70s when I worked for the E-L Rwy Telecom Dept, it was our assigned responsibility to maintain and repair hot-box detectors. One frigid winter day, circa 1973-74?, an east bound freight passing through Tuxedo, NY, derailed right smack on top of the hotbox detector at that location, due to a…you guessed it…a hotbox, demolishing the entire electronics cabin as well as the infrared Kodak cells and buried foundations under the track. We had to pik through frozen ground under the rails and ties to repair and replace the whole mess.

  2. From the 2008 NS timetable for the Fort Wayne line there was another DED located (at Columbiana, MP 60.8) about halfway between the current one at E. Palestine and the current one at Salem. It would be interesting to know when it was removed from service, and why.

You must login to submit a comment