Norfolk Southern Train Derailment: NTSB Preliminary Report

Here is the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report, “Norfolk Southern Railway Train Derailment with Subsequent Hazardous Material Release and Fires” [PDF]. The track along which the train travelled prior to the accident was equipped with wayside defect detectors which monitor, among other items, bearing temperatures of axles of passing trains (“Hot Bearing Detector” or HBD). The report states:

On the Fort Wayne Line of the Keystone Division, NS has equipped their rail network with HBD systems to assess the temperature conditions of wheel bearings while en route. The function of the HBD is to detect overheated bearings and provide audible real-time warnings to train crews. Train 32N passed three HBD systems on its trip before the derailment. At MP 79.9, the suspect bearing from the 23rd car had a recorded temperature of 38°F above ambient temperature. When train 32N passed the next HBD, at MP 69.01, the bearing’s recorded temperature was 103°F above ambient. The third HBD, at MP 49.81, recorded the suspect bearing’s temperature at 253°F above ambient.

After the train stopped, the crew observed fire and smoke and notified the Cleveland East dispatcher of a possible derailment. With dispatcher authorization, the crew applied handbrakes to the two railcars at the head of the train, uncoupled the head-end locomotives, and moved the locomotives about 1 mile from the uncoupled railcars. Responders arrived at the derailment site and began response efforts.


Theoretically, the emergency brake should operate by simultaneously braking all cars to prevent accordioning. Accordioning should only occur if a lead car or locomotive braked and trailing ones did not.


Here is a video explaining how railway defect detectors work.


That’s why they have started to put electrically operated air releases onto railroad cars – because the engine can release the air, but it take some time to decompress all the way through the train, so that the front cars are braking, but the rear cars are still moving with all their intertia.


That’s inexcusable. When you pass an HBD, it tells you either that there is a hotbox somewhere on your train N axles back, or it says “no defects found”. If you, as an engineer, pass an HBD, and don’t hear the report, you should stop your train and let the dispatcher know.