CINCINNATI (WKRC) – Norfolk Southern has seen two of its trains involved in major derailments in Ohio in the last month, including the chemical disaster in East Palestine and last weekend’s derailment in Clark County.
And overall, the Atlanta-based railroad’s accident rate has climbed steadily nationally and in Ohio in the last 10 years, according to a Local 12 Investigates analysis of federal rail safety data.
The increase doesn’t come as any surprise to David Farwick, who worked as an engineer for Norfolk Southern for 40 years until retiring in 2017.
He notes railroads run fewer trains which are much longer than those in the past, possibly leading to the higher rates.
"So, if you have two 8,000-foot trains, and you combine it to be 12,000 ... So, you’re going to have less trains, less people and it's just more with less,” he said.
On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board announced it was investigating the “safety culture” at Norfolk Southern following five major incidents needing the board’s investigation in the last two years.
Local 12 Investigates analyzed 10 years’ worth of accident data from the Federal Railroad Administration, the agency that regulates the industry.
Norfolk Southern says its accident rates were down in 2022.
That’s true, but its accident rates overall per million miles traveled on the rail lines and in Ohio both have steadily increased in the last 10 years as seen here, up to 3.6 per million miles in 2022. That’s up nearly 77 percent compared to 2013, with 2021’s rate even higher at 3.8 accidents per million miles.
Norfolk Southern also had 38 accidents in Ohio in 2021, a 10-year high.
Norfolk Southern also has the highest rate overall nationally when compared to the entire rail system and the country’s other largest railroads, including CSX, Union Pacific, and BNSF.
And the number of Norfolk Southern's hazmat train cars damaged or derailed in Ohio rose dramatically in the last 10 years, including 26 just last year.
Norfolk Southern declined on camera interviews.
In an email, the railroad said in part:
"We diligently monitor our trains and infrastructure to identify potential hazards, and we invest approximately a billion dollars into maintaining our infrastructure annually.”
The railroad also had these responses to other parts of the analysis:
“Re: Norfolk Southern systemwide statistics
Re: Norfolk Southern Ohio statistics
But the company did not address the overall rise in accidents in the last decade.
Farwick agrees that the railroad does a good job monitoring its lines, saying the quality of the rail tracks isn't the problem, adding that the industry is still relatively safe overall.
"When I was working, they inspected mainline rail every day,” he said.
To Farwick's point, the FRA data shows fewer trains running and fewer staff, but just as much freight. That means meaning trains are getting longer and longer with fewer engineers and conductors running them.
Norfolk Southern’s chief executive officer Alan Shaw is expected to testify before a key U.S. Senate committee Thursday. Local 12 will be covering that in depth.
Cincinnati city leaders want to sell the Southern Railway that travels from Queensgate to Chattanooga, Tenn., to Norfolk Southern for $1.6 billion.
The city currently leases the rail line to Norfolk Southern for $25 million a year.
Supporters of the plan say the sale could help improve the city's infrastructure.
The sale needs a change in state law this spring before it can be presented to city voters for approval in November.