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Norfolk Southern CEO promises to keep improving safety on the railroad based on consultant's report

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Norfolk Southern's CEO pledged to continue working to improve safety after consultant the railroad hired following the fiery Ohio derailment recommended making sure that safety is truly a priority at all levels and continuing many efforts it has already begun.

CEO Alan Shaw told the railroad's employees in a letter Thursday that Norfolk Southern will take several immediate steps in response to the initial report Atkins Nuclear Secured delivered including strengthening the way it responds to any safety incident and establishing a dedicated team to work on implementing the consultant's recommendations.

The railroad industry has been in the spotlight ever since the February derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border prompted evacuations, health worries, a massive ongoing cleanup and calls for reforms.

“I know that each of you feels as strongly as I do that we need to do everything we can to prevent accidents that can impact communities like East Palestine in the future,” Shaw said in his letter to employees. “To be an industry leader requires us to raise the bar. And that is exactly what we are doing.”

A previous report from the Federal Railroad Administration said that Norfolk Southern had too often been content to do only the minimum required to ensure safety. The Atkins consultant echoed some of the same themes in its recommendations but also said it found “outstanding leaders at all levels devoted to safety” and praised the railroad's strong response to the East Palestine derailment that includes pledging more than $74 million to that community. Just Thursday, the railroad announced a $4.3 million grant to help the city overhaul its water treatment system.

Atkins said Norfolk Southern needs to do a better job of making sure everyone throughout the railroad learns the lessons from safety incidents and should continue hiring to fill critical shortages while trying to reduce the pressure on managers and doing more to coach employees to improve instead of disciplining them for minor concerns.

Shaw said this report is just one of the initial steps to improve safety on the railroad and Atkins will continue to recommend improvements over the next couple years. Norfolk Southern also said in the immediate aftermath of the East Palestine derailment that it would add more trackside detectors to help spot mechanical problems before they can cause derailments and work with the rest of the industry to evaluate how to respond to warnings from those detectors.

Norfolk Southern and all the major freight railroads also promised to join the Federal Railroad Administration's anonymous safety reporting system, but so far they haven't been able to reach an agreement to do that because they want to retain the ability to discipline workers in certain circumstances.

Norfolk Southern has been working to repair its strained relationships with its unions this year by addressing some of their quality of life concerns about the lack of paid sick time and demanding schedules. The consultant recommended that the railroad continue to work with labor leaders to find additional ways to improve safety.

Shaw said he's going to establish a new vice president to encourage workers to share more suggestions on how to improve safety and operations although that person will have to find ways to overcome rail workers' fears of retaliation if they do speak out.

While working to improve safety, Norfolk Southern also pledged to make improvements to more than 70 of its facilities across 22 states in the eastern United States as part of an effort to improve morale.