NTSB reprimands National Steel Car, removes company from derailment probe

Norfolk Southern cars numbered 162390-162749 were included in the AAR recommendation. Stephen C. Host

WASHINGTON — The National Transportation Safety Board today removed National Steel Car from its investigation into the March 4 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in Ohio and was critical of the automaker’s claims that its track axles were disconnected as a potential cause of the crash.

“In a statement Friday, National Steel Car said its steel coil wheels were cleared of involvement in the derailment,” the NTSB said. “However, the NTSB has not ruled out a role that track axles may or may not have played in the derailment at this stage of the investigation.”

In the wake of the Springfield, Ohio derailment, the Association of American Railroads issued an equipment advisory recommending that 675 steel coil cars manufactured by National Steel Car be removed until their track axles could be replaced. NS said loose wagon wheels posed an increased risk of out-of-gauge derailments.

National Steel Car logoThe fitment recommendations were lifted last week after National Steel Car data showed all 2,700 wheels were installed correctly, the automaker said. National Steel Car CEO Gregory J. Aziz said the cancellation of the equipment consultation “completely exonerates National in all respects in relation to this derailment”.

National Steel Car’s release of information about an ongoing investigation prompted the NTSB to take the unusual step of removing the automaker as a party to the investigation. Parties to an NTSB investigation are not permitted to release information that has not been fully verified or confirmed by the safety board.

“National Steel Car’s actions in recent days have demonstrated a lack of cooperation and adherence to our party processes and impede your continued participation in the investigation,” James Southworth, the NTSB’s lead investigator, wrote in a letter to National Steel Car yesterday.

The NTSB said the restrictions placed on the parties to the investigation exist to prevent the uncoordinated release of investigative information. The NTSB has used the party system for decades as part of its investigative process, allowing factual investigative information to be shared during the early phases of an investigation.

“Prior to the NTSB’s adoption of the final report on this incident, only appropriate NTSB personnel are authorized to publicly release the results of the investigation, and even then, release will be limited to verified factual information identified during the investigation,” Southworth wrote. “Mr. Aziz not only provided factual information for the investigation, but also speculated about the cause of the incident.

The uncoordinated releases of information, the NTSB said, do not help the board’s goal of transparency or serve the public interest. “Rather, they only serve the self-interest of one party,” the NTSB said.

The 210-car, 17,966-ton freight train that derailed in Springfield had most of its tonnage at the front and rear of the train, with empty cars sandwiched between them, the FRA said in a train safety advisory issued on -early this month. The train had three locomotives at the front end and two distributed power units located in the middle.

“The train was traveling on an uphill grade of 0.6%, with the heavier portion being on a 0.7% downhill grade,” the FRA said. “The weight was mostly concentrated at the front and rear ends of the train. At the time of the accident, dynamic braking was applied only to the front end of the locomotive while the DPUs were inoperative, causing it to function as a conventional train. The derailment occurred at the sag between the up and down gradients, with short, empty railcars designed to transport coils derailing first. Buff’s forces peaked when the section of the train came down, causing the derailment of cars 70-72 and the resulting pileup.’

A driver’s dash cam captured what appeared to be the start of the derailment of 28 carriages at a level crossing.

Norfolk Southern said in a statement today that it “continues to work with the NTSB and FRA on their investigations into the Springfield, Ohio derailment. As we said earlier, after the derailment, the investigation team found loose wheels on the axles of some derailed cars and signs of unusual movement elsewhere on our network on other cars of this series. Safety comes first – and we immediately notified the manufacturer, investigative agencies and the AAR of these findings.”

The AAR confirmed that its Wheels, Axles, Bearings and Lubrication Committee rescinded its equipment recommendations last week. “The AAR is acting on the information available, including from the NTSB. We stand by this decision and will continue to evaluate all such factors across the network,” a spokesperson said.

Representatives for National Steel Car declined to comment.

Note: Updated at 2:45 p.m. Central time as National Steel Car declined to comment.

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