Safety concerns dominate Norfolk Southern railroad CEO’s job since Ohio derailment

Norfolk Southern’s CEO has spoken usually of security and higher service since he took the job over a yr in the past, however it’s security that has dominated discussions after one in all his trains derailed and caught fireplace in February in Ohio, creating towering black smoke, forcing evacuations and elevating environmental worries.

Alan Shaw has stated his plans embrace including extra trackside detectors to assist spot mechanical issues. He additionally has hailed work with unions to enhance security — one thing labor leaders say Norfolk Southern hasn’t carried out a lot of since it started overhauling operations in 2019.

“That interplay and that engagement with our craft colleagues is actually vital to me,” Shaw stated in an interview with The Related Press on the railroad’s Atlanta headquarters final week, a day earlier than federal hearings on the East Palestine derailment started. “I would like all 20,000 voices at Norfolk Southern pushing for security. And that’s what you’re going to see.”

Within the interview, Shaw reiterated a lot of his similar security guarantees, and provided extra particulars about his plans, however many critics stay skeptical as a result of they have not seen elementary adjustments. And regulators and members of Congress say Norfolk Southern ought to be doing greater than it has introduced.


The railroad — and your complete trade — is beneath intense watch as a result of chemical compounds spilled within the East Palestine derailment, and since hundreds of individuals needed to evacuate when officers blew open vehicles of vinyl chloride to burn it and forestall vehicles from exploding. A number of different trade derailments strengthened concerns.

East Palestine highlights that regardless that freight railroads are considered the most secure technique to ship cargo over land, only one derailment could be disastrous.

The railroad has spent months eradicating contaminated water and soil, and the cleanup continues. In the meantime, residents fear about potential long-term hurt, although well being officers insist the air and water are secure.

Shaw believes “we’re a secure railroad” as a result of Norfolk Southern had its fewest derailments and accidents final yr in additional than a decade. However another Federal Railroad Affiliation measures have worsened, just like the charges of complete accidents and railyard accidents.

An FRA report on Norfolk Southern’s security tradition is anticipated quickly, and the Nationwide Transportation Safety Board continues to look at its security practices because it investigates what induced the Ohio derailment.


The Worldwide Affiliation of Machinists and Aerospace Employees union was the one of Norfolk Southern’s 13 unions that did not signal a letter final month promising to cooperate to enhance security. It does not assume Shaw’s pronouncements have translated into significant adjustments and worries new workers and people getting back from furloughs may not have sufficient security coaching.

“Mr. Shaw comes throughout to me as type of as that used automobile salesman making an attempt actually onerous to promote Norfolk Southern and saying all this nice stuff,” stated James Orwan, a Machinist Union basic chairman on Norfolk Southern.

One important change his locomotive mechanics have seen is the resumption of security conferences in the beginning of shifts, Orwan stated, however the railroad is so understaffed that it may possibly’t do some issues managers speak about.

Shaw stated he has met with that union and is glad officers really feel comfy elevating concerns. And Shaw is aware of “you choose me by the outcomes,” however he’s satisfied the railroad is “making quite a lot of progress.”

Even low-level managers now get bonuses for enhancing security and repair — not only for protecting the trains transferring.

Norfolk Southern has employed a nuclear energy skilled, Atkins Nuclear Secured, to advise on its security tradition.

“You understand, the Navy nuclear program is the gold customary in security of all of trade,” stated Shaw, who was impressed by the protection focus throughout his first skilled job serving to to put in nuclear reactors in Navy ships. “And I wished that DNA as a result of Norfolk Southern goes to be the gold customary of security within the rail trade.”

However some unions bristle — notably as a result of Atkins is unfamiliar with railroads.

“Hiring outdoors consultants could sound good to traders, however the specialists are working on daily basis within the cab of the engine,” stated Eddie Corridor, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.


Unions say the brand new lean working mannequin that Norfolk Southern and the opposite main freight railroads are utilizing — referred to as “precision-scheduled railroading” — has made the trade extra harmful as a result of deep workforce cuts make it onerous to maintain up with jobs and preventative upkeep. And employees say an rising reliance on longer trains is a security concern.

Examples cited most frequently by unions, together with at Friday’s NTSB listening to, are that inspectors who used to have a number of minutes to examine every automobile are pressured to take action in a single minute or much less, and that Norfolk Southern depends an excessive amount of on abbreviated inspections by prepare crews as an alternative of detailed ones by specialists.

However Shaw stated Norfolk Southern’s security report has improved since it began utilizing precision scheduled railroading in 2019. The mannequin’s core ideas are one thing “any industrial firm would totally help,” he stated — whereas noting that he has additionally tempered his railroad’s strategy to that mannequin up to now yr to focus extra on long-term income development and fewer on short-term cost-cutting.

And Norfolk Southern, he stated, is backing away from dashing inspections.

“My expectation is, is that we are going to not put an unsafe railcar out onto our community,” Shaw stated. “Up to now, we have had tips on inspection occasions. We have eliminated these lately.”

Norfolk Southern will not be fast to put off employees when the economic system slows, so it may possibly deal with the eventual resurgence in demand, Shaw stated. The railroad has employed aggressively after reducing too deeply through the pandemic, though it stays greater than 1,500 under pre-pandemic ranges.

“No firm goes to develop over time if it offers a awful product to its clients each three years,” Shaw stated.


Steps like including extra trackside detectors — gadgets that examine indicators like wheel-bearing temperatures — after the East Palestine derailment appeared apparent, provided that the NTSB has stated that an overheating bearing that triggered a warning seemingly induced the crash.

Norfolk Southern has additionally pledged over $62 million to assist East Palestine get well. Resident Misti Allison, who hosted Shaw at her house for lunch after she testified alongside him at a congressional listening to, stated issues like $25 million to enhance East Palestine’s parks are welcome however tangential.

“Whereas I believe that he’s doing job, they’re doing it in a technique to profit Norfolk Southern and never essentially the priorities of the residents,” Allison stated. “I want Norfolk Southern’s priorities could be in regards to the well being and security of the households.”

Shaw stated he thinks quite a lot of the reforms proposed in Congress since the derailment, like strengthening tank automobile requirements and increasing hazmat coaching, make sense and received’t burden railroads.

However, he stated, he doesn’t assume FRA statistics hyperlink prepare size and derailments or crew dimension and security, so he doesn’t consider Congress or states ought to regulate these. And he’s leery of some proposed requirements for trackside detectors within the invoice as a result of, Shaw stated, they may lock his railroad into present know-how as an alternative of future, higher sensors.

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