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Failed wheel bearing caused Kentucky train derailment but didn’t trigger alarms beforehand, CSX says

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This image taken from video and provided by WTVQ shows people helping arrange cots at Rockcastle Middle School, being used as an evacuation center, in Mt Vernon, Ky., Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023. People were evacuated from a nearby town after a CSX train derailed Wednesday near Livingston, a remote town with about 200 people in Rockcastle County. CSX says two of the 16 cars that derailed carried molten sulfur, which caught fire after the cars were breached.
This image taken from video and provided by WTVQ shows people helping arrange cots at Rockcastle Middle School, being used as an evacuation center, in Mt Vernon, Ky., Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023. People were evacuated from a nearby town after a CSX train derailed Wednesday near Livingston, a remote town with about 200 people in Rockcastle County. CSX says two of the 16 cars that derailed carried molten sulfur, which caught fire after the cars were breached. (WTVQ via AP) Photo Gallery

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A failed wheel bearing on a train car caused a derailment that sparked a chemical fire and forced residents of a small town in Kentucky out of their homes for just over a day, including most of Thanksgiving, according to CSX railroad.

The accident happened Wednesday afternoon just north of Livingston. A spokesman for the railroad said Monday that crews were able to restore the tracks over the weekend and trains resumed running through the area before midday Sunday. All 16 railcars involved in the derailment have been removed from the site, and crews removed the spilled chemical and 2,500 tons of impacted soil and replaced it with clean material, CSX said.

The CSX train derailed around 2:30 p.m. near the remote town with about 200 people in Rockcastle County. Residents were encouraged to evacuate just a day before the Thanksgiving holiday before being cleared to return to their homes late Thursday afternoon.

Two of the 16 cars that derailed carried molten sulfur, which caught fire after the cars were breached. No other hazardous materials were released. A spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration said the investigation is ongoing and the agency doesn’t typically release any preliminary findings.

State officials monitored the air after the derailment for traces of hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide, but there had been no detection of those substances at the derailment site or the nearby town of Livingston since Thursday morning. The fire was extinguished at the site just after noon on Thursday, and officials said that it was safe for residents to return home. The railroad’s Bryan Tucker said no sulfur dioxide had been detected in the area since the fire was put out.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency website, sulfur dioxide can cause respiratory problems, depending on the concentration and length of exposure.

Tucker said the bearing that failed didn’t get hot enough to trigger an alarm from the last one of the railroad’s trackside detectors that the train passed, so the crew didn’t get any warning before the derailment. A wheel bearing has to be at least 170 degrees hotter than the ambient temperature to trigger an alarm.

The train traveled about 21 miles after the last detector and was two miles away from the next one along the tracks. Across all of CSX’s networks in the eastern United States, those detectors are an average of 14.9 miles apart, but on less-traveled tracks that don’t include passenger traffic the detectors can be farther apart. Tucker said that was the case here.

Those trackside detectors that railroads rely on to help spot defects before they can cause derailments received a lot of attention earlier this year after an overheating wheel bearing caused a fiery derailment on a different railroad in eastern Ohio in February. In that Norfolk Southern derailment, the crew did get a warning but it didn’t come soon enough for them to be able to stop the train before it derailed in East Palestine.

That derailment and several others since put the spotlight on railroad safety nationwide, but the reforms proposed afterward have largely stalled in Congress, and regulators have also made little progress.

CSX said it was thankful to Rockcastle County authorities who helped respond to the incident and to community members and local businesses that helped affected residents and assisted the company in serving Thanksgiving dinners for the community.

“CSX apologizes for the inconvenience this incident caused the local community and is appreciative for everyone’s patience throughout the recovery effort,” the railroad said in a statement.

CSX worked with two local restaurants to provide a Thanksgiving meal at a local church around midday Thursday and delivered holiday meals to the people working at a middle school shelter for residents. The railroad also provided any necessary supplies from a Dollar Tree store in the area free of cost.

Tucker said that about 400 households, which each likely include several people, have applied for reimbursement so far from the railroad for costs related to the derailment.

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