US rail company Norfolk Southern has broken ground on its new First Responder Training Centre in East Palestine, Ohio, as it continues its Operation Awareness and Response programme to strengthen the relationship between railroads and first responders. 

The centre, which is in the same area as the company’s catastrophic derailment in February, will offer free training for firefighters and other first responders in the surrounding region with both traditional fire service training and specialised rail-specific training. 

Norfolk Southern vice-president of safety John Felps said: “This training centre and our previously expanded Operation Awareness and Response programme will provide first responders across the region with essential training on how to respond to unlikely rail incidents. 

“We’re excited to get the training centre up and running to bring more capacity for first responder training to all types of incidents while strengthening the network of professionals specially trained to respond to rail incidents.” 

The new centre will offer classroom and web-based learning alongside tabletop drills and full-scale response exercises. It will replace the current temporary operations out of the company’s rail yard in Bellevue, Ohio, which has trained more than 400 local emergency services workers in 2023 so far. 

At least $20m will be invested in the centre over the next decade as the company seeks to establish a “lasting presence” in the area following the February derailment, which led to concerns from local residents after 6.3 million gallons of hazardous wastewater were accidentally released into the town, forcing most of the population to move away. 

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By GlobalData

The State of Ohio also filed a civil lawsuit against Norfolk Southern seeking compensation for the damages, with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency estimating that 27,700t of excavated soil would have to be removed. 

The company’s president and CEO Alan H. Shaw said that Norfolk Southern was now committed to setting the gold standard of railway safety with its centre: “First responders are heroes and we aim to ensure they have the training and expertise to do their jobs safely, no matter the situation. 

“We are grateful to East Palestine’s leaders for partnering with us to make this training centre a reality.” 

Norfolk Southern has been funding a number of different projects since then, with $95.2m reportedly invested in the village and its surrounding areas under the company’s “Making it Right” programme. 

Nearly 50 of the 100 cars on the train came off the tracks, likely due to an overheated wheel bearing, with 20 of them holding hazardous materials. The incident caused a massive fire at the site and led to the release of toxic vinyl chloride which sparked an evacuation of East Palestine residents.