By Mariah Alanskas, Kent State NewsLab/Ideastream
About 20 minutes from East Palestine in Leetonia, Ohio, Norfolk Southern trains speed through a new AI inspection portal.
The technology acts as a high-speed safety “toll booth” for trains. As each train passes through the portal, 42 stadium lights flash on as 38 high-resolution cameras take photos at all angles for inspection.
The two portals stand over two parallel tracks made for trains running in opposite directions.
According to Norfolk Southern’s vice president of safety, John Fleps, the portals are the first of their kind.
“We had a 140-car train travel through this site at track speed, which was over 40 miles an hour,” Fleps said.
As the trains rush through the flash of lights, the cameras capture around 1,000 pictures per rail car.
“We’re able to digest that, consume that, extract intelligence from it and then get that to the people who can act on it,” Fleps said.
The cameras are meant to pick up anything that the inspection crew missed as they walked up and down the train checking for things like worn, broken parts. It is meant to be an extra “safety net” for the trains, but not replace staff, Fleps said.
New tech may help improve inspections
This technology has been in the works since 2020. The first portal was meant to be placed in Atlanta, where Norfolk Southern is based. But according to Fleps, the February derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine accelerated the portal’s development and its move to the small village of Leetonia.
Immediately after the East Palestine derailment — which is suspected to have been caused by the failure of a train car’s axle after an overheated wheel bearing went undetected until it was too late — conversations around rail industry safety came to the forefront of public discussion.
The federal government held hearings on what had gone wrong and released a report on the “safety culture” at Norfolk Southern. Since then, several politicians have introduced legislation to regulate railroads more strictly.
In addition to its new inspection technology, Norfolk Southern has introduced a “Six-Point Safety Plan,” with promises to “work with the industry on practices” surrounding heat bearing and acoustic bearing detectors.
Heat bearing detectors, also known as hot box detectors or wayside detectors, identify issues in trains as they pass by using temperature. Acoustic bearing detectors use sound to identify problems.
“What we’re doing to enhance our wayside detector network is about a $50 million investment over the course of two years,” Fleps said in October. “That’s our 17 digital train inspection portals. That’s the 250-plus hot bearing detectors. We’re also installing other wayside detection equipment that’s designed to find problems like we had in East Palestine, called acoustic bearing detectors. We’ve got 17 of those that are installed and up and running already since March of this year.”
Still no government regulations for detectors
However, when it comes to these detectors — or even Norfolk Southern’s AI inspection portal in Leetonia — there are no government regulations yet, only rail industry recommendations and best practices.
Mike Efaw is the legislative director of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, a union that represents over 10,000 workers responsible for the movement of trains. He said a lack of regulation can make it hard to hold companies like Norfolk Southern accountable.
“Defect detectors, and any kind of wayside detection technology, is unregulated,” Efaw said. “There are no regulations on any of that equipment right now. That means, if it’s being a pain to the railroad, if it’s slowing down too many trains, they’ll tell the maintainer to just turn it off.”
In the safety culture report released in August, The Federal Railroad Administration found that, when it came to using to wayside detection technology, Norfolk Southern had “a significant lack of standardization and consistency, directly contributing to data not being received by the personnel responsible for addressing the issues identified” due to findings being communicated via email instead of a quicker, more direct method.
The Rail Safety Act, whose sponsors include Ohio senators Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance, includes regulations for wayside detectors. But the bipartisan bill is currently deadlocked in Congress.
Another bill, the Rail Worker and Community Safety Act, was introduced in October by Representatives Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.) and Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), and has gained the support of Efaw and his union. The bill itself calls for more standardization of the training process across all Class I railroads for signalmen like Efaw.
Class I railroad companies are those that generate annual revenue greater than $250 million. There are eight in the U.S., including Norfolk Southern.
“There is no standardization,” Efaw said. “There is no way to say we have the best trained people in the world without a standard.”
Railroads motivated to improve safety on their own
But Allan Zarembski, a professor of rail safety and engineering at the University of Delaware, said railroads already follow stricter standards than what FRA requires.
“The railroads … yes, occasionally they’ll violate the standard, but most railroad standards are by design tougher than the FRA standards,” Zarembski said. “That’s because, again, [railroads] don’t want the derailments.”
While legislation remains stalled, Norfolk Southern is proceeding with its own safety improvements.
According to Fleps and the Six-Point Safety Plan for Norfolk Southern, wayside detectors will now be no farther than 15 feet apart. Before East Palestine, the average distance for wayside detectors was 20 to 25 feet apart, in line with the industry recommendation.
Zarembski explained derailments happen for a variety of reasons that have many different technological solutions, which can make it difficult to allow for effective regulation and standardization.
According to the FRA’s database, there are around 800 derailments per year on Class I railways like Norfolk Southern. They can be caused by human factors, track problems, mechanical and electrical failures or a variety of other issues.
“I happen to be in the school that says that it’s not necessary to regulate everything,” Zarembski said. “But, there are certain advantages to the minimum safety standards and that’s what the industry does.”
Efaw, on the other hand, believes the industry’s standards aren’t always enough.
“Why would you do less?” Efaw asked. “Why would you make anything less safe than it can be?”
This story comes from the Collaborative NewsLab at Kent State University in partnership with Ideastream Public Media and is funded by Grist and The Center for Rural Strategies.