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Inspectors claim 1-minute railcar inspections not enough to flag faulty equipment

Inspectors claim 1-minute railcar inspections not enough to flag faulty equipment (WKRC)
Inspectors claim 1-minute railcar inspections not enough to flag faulty equipment (WKRC)
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CINCINNATI (WKRC) - In the rail industry, time equals money. For the Transportation Communications Union (TCU)/International Association of Mechanics (IAM) -- which represents tens of thousands of carmen and mechanics -- nothing epitomizes that philosophy more than precision-scheduled railroading (PSR), a push to cut downtime and keep railcars moving.

Beginning as a concept for freight railroad operations in the early 1990s, PSR has become the industry standard, yielding billions of dollars in profits for railroad companies.


US Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who is co-sponsoring the Railway Safety Act of 2023, says the push for profits has come at the expense of safety.

“That's the Wall Street model they're following for higher profits and more compensation for the people at the top,” Sen. Brown said. “Of course, safety is compromised and communities like East Palestine get hurt.”

On Feb. 3, security footage captured the wheels on a Norfolk Southern railcar spewing sparks as they rolled through Salem, Ohio.

Less than an hour later, that train derailed in East Palestine, erupting in flames and causing an environmental catastrophe that would set off a firestorm over railway safety.


The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a preliminary report three weeks after the derailment, pointing to an overheated wheel bearing as the probable cause.

“This was 100 percent preventable,” said NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy, who expressed deep concern about rail safety measures.


When asked if he was surprised by what happened in East Palestine, TCU national legislative director David Arouca didn’t hesitate to answer, “Absolutely not.”

Arouca says he blames PSR for cutting inspection times. Documents from several railroad companies reveal railcar inspections, which routinely took an average of three minutes a decade ago, have been steadily cut over the years down to one-minute inspections for each railcar today.

He made it very clear that he believes one minute is not enough time for carmen to inspect, identify, and flag faulty equipment.

“It is physically impossible to do these inspections in that sort of a timeframe,” Arouca said, noting that most railcars require checking 180 items. In a one-minute inspection, that boils down to three items a second.


To demonstrate the difference between a full inspection and the one-minute version, TCU/IAM turned to Patrick Clear, an inspector and instructor at a TCU/IAM training center in Excelsior Springs, Missouri. He agreed to conduct each inspection on camera.

During the one-minute inspection, Clear walked briskly, looking over the massive railcar -- known as a “hopper.”

Relying on his eyes alone to identify problems, he did spot two missing brake shoes.

“You don't have enough time,” said Arouca.

Next, he began the full inspection.

The process looked and sounded much different this time, with Clear frequently kneeling down and stopping to take a closer look.

“You have a crack right here,” he said, pointing to a thin line crawling up the side of the metal layer on the hopper’s exterior.

Clear then took a piece of metal and banged it against a metal ladder on the railcar.

Arouca explained that this process has been practiced by carmen for more than a century and helps them hear any loose metal.

“That’s one of the reasons why our carmen are colloquially termed ‘car knockers’ by their friends in the industry,” Arouca said.

Next, Clear used a modern calibration tool to check the gauge on the wheels.

“Almost a high flange,” he said -- a reference to the projected rim, which is a key feature in keeping the wheel on the rail.

Clear measured the height of the coupler with a tape measure before using a flashlight to check for grease on the bearings, which could signal a seal failure.

“No damage," he said.

Clear needed another tool to reach the brakes, pull the shoes back and check the tension. Again, there was no trouble.

But a close look at one of the wheel assemblies revealed that a U-shaped piece of metal strapped around a beam was separated.

“You've got a broken bottom right support,” said Clear as moved on to the other side of the car.

The recording ended eight-and-a-half minutes later, far longer than the three-minute standard.

But Arouca says the recording doesn’t necessarily reflect inspections performed on the job, since Clear often stopped to explain the process and his findings.

“Well, he is trying to narrate as well,” said Arouca.

The real running time is murky, but it’s crystal clear that Clear’s full inspection revealed cause for concern.

He found five serious safety issues that, Arouca says, would have pulled the railcar from service.

“I'm going to go and fill out the bad order cards,” Clear said.

Taking railcars out of service after a thorough inspection prevents potential problems on the rails, and Arouca says that’s not a priority in precision-scheduled railroading.

“You have a lot of stuff going down the track without any idea whether it's defective or not,” he said.


The Association of American Railroads (AAR) doesn’t dispute the push for quicker inspections, but, in a lengthy statement sent to Spotlight on America, a spokesperson cited the limitations of these inspections overall.

“There are certain equipment defects that are impossible to detect visually when a train is not in motion,” the statement reads. “There are many equipment defects that require a train to be in motion. Research, data and years of experience have proven that a layered approach combining both visual and widely deployed technology that keeps an eye on asset health is the best way to improve safety performance. The data is clear that these efforts have paid off with the lowest number of mainline mechanical equipment failure accidents last year.”

Among the widely deployed high-tech tools are wheel impact load and profile detectors, and acoustic and hot bearing detectors.

In NTSB’S preliminary report of the derailment in East Palestine, investigators said a “hot bearing detector (HBD) transmitted a critical audible alarm message instructing the crew to slow and stop the train.”

But it was sent too late to prevent the derailment.


“They're shortening inspections. They're not having the most qualified people do them,” Sen. Brown said. “Of course safety is compromised and communities like East Palestine get hurt.”

Sen. Brown insists more inspectors and more thorough inspections will make a big difference in rail safety, which is why the Railway Safety Act of 2023 calls on the US Secretary of Transportation "to create minimum time requirements that a qualified mechanical inspector must spend when inspecting a rail car or locomotive."

Senator JD Vance (R-Ohio), who is co-sponsoring the bill with Sen. Brown, agrees that railroad reform is desperately needed.

“We have way too many train accidents in this country,” Sen. Vance said. “We ought to at least force them [the railroad companies] to have some commonsense safety standards.”

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Until the bill passes, Arouca remains concerned, saying it’s only a matter of time before the next catastrophic derailment if rail safety isn’t improved.

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