U.S. safety board to hold Norfolk Southern derailment investigative hearing

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the site where toxic chemicals were spilled following a train derailment, in East Palestine

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will hold a two-day investigative hearing June 22-23 on the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, board chair Jennifer Homendy said on Tuesday.

Earlier this month, a U.S. Senate panel approved rail safety legislation that tightens rules on trains carrying explosive substances like the Norfolk Southern-operated train that derailed in Ohio in which cars carrying toxic vinyl chloride and other hazardous chemicals spilled and caught fire.

Homendy said the investigative hearing that will be held at the high school in East Palestine will have four panels and she hopes the NTSB can issue a final report on the derailment by early 2024 but it could be later. "We'll get more information as a result of this hearing," Homendy said.

The panels will include emergency response related to the initial evacuation, wayside defect detectors and hot bearings, the decision to vent and burn and rail tank car safety.

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw and railroad union leaders issued a joint letter Tuesday committing "to work together to enhance rail safety for our people and the communities we serve. ...We will collaborate, consult experts, review best practices, and listen to the people closest to the work."

In March, the NTSB and Federal Railroad Administration both announced special safety assessments of Norfolk. The NTSB opened a special investigation and urged the railroad to "take immediate action "to review and assess its safety practices."

Earlier this month, the NTSB said another Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed near New Castle, Pennsylvania received a warning several miles before the incident.

Homendy said Tuesday the Pennsylvania derailment appears to be related to an overheated wheel bearing.

The NTSB said earlier initial information indicated the train received an alarm "from a wayside defect detector" several miles before the train derailed. Homendy said Tuesday there were some reports that "the crew on the train did not get a notification" but that is still under investigation.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Aurora Ellis)