Clark County train derailment: Railway reopens, federal probe may take a year or more

Norfolk Southern: “We’re cooperating with the NTSB, we’re cooperating with the local, state, federal resources.”

Not even two days after a train derailment saw 28 cars of a 212-car Norfolk Southern train overturned near the Clark County Fairgrounds, trains traveled through Springfield and Clark County again.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, the agency in charge of overseeing investigations of transportation accidents, will investigate the derailment. Representatives of the federal agency arrived on scene Monday.

The derailment Saturday afternoon on State Route 41 was the latest in a series of incidents involving Norfolk Southern.

“We’re investigating all of these incidents, we’re cooperating with the NTSB, we’re cooperating with the local, state, federal resources,” said Norfolk Southern spokesperson Connor Spielmaker during a press conference Monday afternoon.

Spielmaker said maintenance crews placed prefabricated railroad track panels on the affected part of the railway, and rail traffic reopened Monday morning. Multiple trains traveled at a reduced speed through the stretch where the derailment happened.

The roadway on Route 41 between Interstate 70 and Gateway Boulevard in Springfield continues to be closed as crews work to place asphalt on the road, Spielmaker said.

No hazardous material on the derailed cars

None of the 28 derailed cars contained hazardous materials, according to the Clark County Combined Health District.

“We continue to be confident that the health and safety of our citizens of Clark County and the residents in the area is good… we don’t have any issues with hazardous materials,” said Clark County health commissioner Charles Patterson.

Four empty tankers had residual amounts of polyacrylamide water solution or diesel exhaust fluid, according to the Clark County EMA.

Other cars on the train, which were not a part of the derailment, were carrying chemicals and materials like liquid propane, benzene, pentanes, sulfuric acid, phosphoric acid solution, petroleum gas and liquid hydrocarbons, according to a list of materials on the train the newspaper obtained through a public records request.

Several cars were also labeled as carrying “alcohols.”

“There’s probably a good 20, 30 cars down right now”

Four 911 callers contacted dispatchers to report Saturday’s derailment.

The derailment occurred at 4:57 p.m. Saturday on Route 41 near Gateway Boulevard, between Interstate 70 and Bird Road, according to the Springfield Post of Ohio State Highway Patrol.

“The train derailed all over the road,” a caller who witnessed the derailment while sitting in a car near the Aldi distribution center told dispatchers. “It just happened as we were pulling up to the stop. There’s probably a good 20, 30 cars down right now. They’re stacked up pretty high.”

The caller said she did not see any flames coming from the pile of cars, but she did report an odd smell, commenting it could be from metal scraping together.

Another caller who was talking to dispatchers while riding in a car on Route 41 said the cars were “completely smashed.”

“All of them are falling off,” she said. “There’s a bunch of them that completely fell off.”

“Stay as far back as you can,” the dispatcher said.

Railway reopening creates questions among local emergency personnel

An emergency management official in Clark County asked Monday why trains already resumed running on the tracks.

“That is a question that we actually have internally as well,” said Michelle Clements-Pitstick, director of Clark County Emergency Management.

A Springfield News-Sun photographer witnessed two trains running on the track past the derailed trains, and a third reportedly went through the area earlier Monday, according to multiple sources.

Sarah Taylor Sulick, public affairs specialist for NTSB, said investigators “will be looking at the condition of the track, the mechanical condition of the train, operations, the position of the cars in the train, and signal and train control among other things. They will also be collecting event recorder data, on-board image recorders, and will conduct interviews with the crew and other witnesses.”

When asked about trains already having used the tracks again, Sulick said, “Investigators are confident they will have what they need to do a thorough investigation.”

Derailment investigation may take up to a year

A full NTSB investigation takes about a year, but preliminary reports are typically available in 2-3 weeks, according to the agency.

However, at the same time, state and local authorities are also typically conducting their own investigations, said Fred Millar, an Alexandria, Virginia-based independent transportation consultant.

“They look at the speed of the trains, they look at the staffing on the train,” he said. “They will look at all these different factors of workforce behavior and the metallurgy, whether there’s any evidence that that that there was a metal failure in the in the hot boxes.”

Hot boxes are wheel bearings on trains that can sometimes overheat and cause a derailment, Millar said.

“Sometimes they say it’s a very simple thing like a broken track, or a washed out track,” he said. “Sometimes it’s much more difficult to determine.”

Two passers-by caught video of the moment the train derailed in Springfield from different angles, one on a dash-cam, and the other on a phone video. Each were from opposite sides of the track as the train came off the tracks.

While the footage is useful to investigators, it’s possible the cause of the crash happened well before the moment the train lurched off the rails, Millar said.

“These trains are enormously heavy, and they can go quite a ways limping with one set of wheels not working,” Millar said.

As crews that staff rail lines get smaller, trains have become longer, and fewer engineers on board means fewer eyes to catch problems when they happen.

Rail companies have long hamstrung workers’ ability to deal with these problems, lobbying Republican and Democrat administrations alike against safety regulations, and cutting rail workforce by 30% over the last 10 years, according to Millar.

“Derailments are very frequent around the country, and they’re and they’re going to keep happening, in part because the railroads are taking new kinds of risks,” he said.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey