US train company boss vows better safety after toxic derailment

The head of US rail operator Norfolk Southern pledged Thursday to improve safety practices and quickly address clean-up needs after its train derailed and spilled toxic chemicals in an Ohio town last month.

But even as chief executive officer Alan Shaw apologized before Congress over the February 3 disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, another one of the company's trains came off the rails Thursday in Alabama.

"It seems like every week there's another accident that Norfolk Southern is a part of in our country," Senator Ed Markey fumed.

The company said there were no injuries and no release of hazardous materials in the derailment in Piedmont, Alabama.

But it added to the woes of one of the largest US railways, with more than 18,000 employees and 19,300 miles (31,060 kilometers) of track.

Earlier this week the National Transportation Safety Board announced a special probe into the railroad's safety record after a second derailment in a month and the third workplace death of a Norfolk Southern employee since December 2021.

The agency said it would probe the company's organization and safety culture, "given the number and significance of recent Norfolk Southern accidents."

"I'm terribly sorry for the impact this derailment has had on the folks of that community" of East Palestine, Shaw told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

"It is clear the safety mechanisms in place were not enough," he said.

"Norfolk Southern will clean the site safely, thoroughly and with urgency," he told the hearing, as he pledged the company will "make our safety culture the best in the industry."

The  February 3 crash is still under investigation, but critics called the accident -- blamed on an overheated wheel bearing -- preventable.

Dozens of rail cars piled up and caught fire, releasing industrial chemicals like vinyl chloride -- a known carcinogenic chemical -- and benzene into the air.

Emergency workers then deliberately burned off more of the materials in other tank cars, releasing dangerous gases into the air and forcing the evacuation of some 2,000 people from their homes.

Many since then have complained of ailments like nausea, headaches and rashes after being exposed to the fumes, and expressed worries that the carcinogenic chemicals could lead to a spike in cancer cases years down the road.

Norfolk Southern has since come under deep criticism for avoiding investing in safety mechanisms that could have prevented the accident while funneling greater profits to shareholders.

"In 10 years Norfolk Southern eliminated 38 percent of its workforce," Senator Sherrod Brown told Shaw Thursday.

"If Norfolk Southern had paid a little more attention to safety and a little less attention to its profits... these accidents would not have been as bad or maybe not happened at all."