The devil is in the details.
On Aug. 4, 2018, a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed near Station Square in Pittsburgh.
Given the proximity of people at the Port Authority T track below, it is providential that there were no casualties. But there were costs. Local transit riders were disrupted for weeks as both the Station Square T stop and the Monongahela Incline were closed for 20 days.
The price tag was high. Labor alone was over $2 million for both Port Authority employees and contractors. The total bill sent to Norfolk Southern was for $3 million.
It didn’t take long for the company to identify the problem. It was a broken rail. They said so shortly after the derailment.
It shouldn’t have taken that long. A new report from the Federal Railroad Administration says the track inspector should have spotted that break 16 days earlier.
According to the report, camera images from the July 20 Sperry Rail Service inspection showed the broken rail.
“The operator’s decisions to disregard induction channel responses from the initial test and not utilize the camera images were serious oversights,” the report said.
That’s definitely true.
But it’s also true that there were other opportunities to catch the break. Norfolk Southern inspects that area twice a week. The last time was two days before the train derailed.
An inspection is more than just a line of boxes to check off. It isn’t something that tolerates complacency. It isn’t something that can be dismissed as overkill.
It is important, and the derailment illustrates why. Don’t pay attention to what is being inspected and why and bad things can happen.
The broken rails were particularly important because of the trains that travel that track. The derailed cars were double-deckers. Seven cars were derailed, but they carried twice as much freight. They had twice as much opportunity to cause damage, twice as much opportunity to injure.
The railroad and the inspectors should have been twice as careful about making sure those rails were safe and whole — especially as Norfolk Southern has pursued putting more doubled cars through the city.
When it comes to safety, the details count.