JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) – Federal railroad inspectors found significantly fewer defects on Norfolk Southern trains and tracks in the Tri-Cities in recent years compared to its counterpart CSX, according to Federal Railroad Administration records, but those records show overall, NS has a higher defect ratio.
Beyond its almost 17% across-the-board defect ratio, inspection records show NS has a higher defect ratio than CSX when it comes to track, signal, operating practices and hazardous material inspections. The FRA inspection records identified defects from January 2014 through January of this year around Johnson City, Greeneville, Knoxville and Asheville.
Inspection records revealed a 47% defect ratio for the track, 82% for the signal, 78% for operating practices and 84% for hazardous materials.
As we reported in March, federal inspectors found more than 700 defects linked to CSX in our region during a two-year period. Over a three-year period, those same inspectors only documented roughly 100 NS defects, but the Federal Railroad Administration said there is a reason for that.
“The reason you’re seeing fewer defects for NS than CSX in Region 3 is because NS has a much smaller footprint in the region,” FRA spokesperson Desiree French said. “FRA has fewer Regional Inspection Points (RIP) on NS than CSX. Therefore, more defects are generated on CSX because of the higher RIP.”
Most recently, inspectors found 16 defects in January, including problems with traffic control signals and the main track between Greeneville and Jonesborough, according to FRA records.
“Any safety issue found by an FRA inspector or Norfolk Southern is corrected as soon as possible and in accordance with Norfolk Southern and FRA guidelines,” Norfolk Southern Public Relations Director Susan Terpay said in an email. “Safety of operations for our employees, customers and the communities that we serve is our first priority.”
Terpay said NS supervisors make more than five million rules checks per year in 22 states.
“These supervisors make observations, similar to FRA inspectors, and correct violations immediately,” she said. “Depending on the incident, a correction could be handed verbally at the time of occurrence, with additional training or discipline.”
Rail expert David Clarke says train travel is incredibly safe nowadays. Although he says any defect could cause a derailment, the University of Tennessee Center for Transportation Research director says, more often than not, the risk is relatively low.
“It’s far riskier to get in your car and drive to the local store than it is to have a railroad in your backyard,” Clarke said. “We try to minimize the risk and that’s part of the regulatory philosophy.”
Donald Gryder is a former FRA employee who says he worked as an inspector for our region leading up to his departure in 2015. He says the FRA fired him amid several Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints he filed alleging discrimination. Regardless of his termination, he says he’s an expert on inspections and said none of his inspections were ever called into question.
“You should be concerned every time you pull up to a railroad crossing and a train is coming,” he said.
Richard Chandley sells vegetables at the Johnson City Farmers Market twice a week, which runs parallel to the NS line. He says it’s hard not to be concerned about the rare possibility something could go wrong.
“It’s kind of scary when you’re standing here and your grandkid’s standing at the fence when the train’s going by,” he said. “A wheel could come off, a panel could come off or anything. I’ve never seen it happen, but it’s always a possibility. If she’s over there, I make her come back over here when the train comes back by out of safety’s sake.”
The FRA’s inspection process is meant to prevent accidents, injuries or fatalities. Federal records show NS has fewer accidents in Tennessee than CSX going back to 2011. In addition, inspection records show NS has a lower defect ratio than CSX for its actual locomotives and cars and what are considered miscellaneous areas.
“It is extremely difficult to draw conclusions from your summary of ‘defects,'” Terpay said. “Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) inspectors review train, track, signal and mechanical operations for all railroads across the country. Each FRA inspector can interpret an issue differently and claim a ‘defect’ associated with it…The defects that FRA inspectors ‘find’ are typically ones that the inspectors and NS find together. We can’t accurately comment on each ‘number’ without knowing exactly what was involved. We operate trains 24/7 and like automobiles, locomotives parts get worn and rail car pars get worn. However we are focused on addressing all issues to maintain to safe operations locally and across the 22 states where we operate.”
Terpay, in two different emails, questioned our reporting on the subject.
“The conclusion that you have reached in your reporting is inaccurate and advancing your opinion in a TV newscast is not fair reporting of the facts,” Terpay said.
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