Rail Safety Bill Priorities Discussed in U.S. Senate Hearing with CEO of Norfolk Southern
Members of a US Senate committee on Wednesday discussed what they would pursue in bipartisan rail safety legislation that is likely to pass Congress after a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
Democrats and Republicans on the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation have hinted that they want to tighten requirements for dangerous goods reporting, real-time communication with train operators about potential problems, and more time for safety checks.
Several Democrats in the group also criticized railroads for overemphasizing profits and share buybacks, saying the money should instead be spent on workers who can improve safety.
While there is no evidence that anyone violated existing regulations to cause the February 3rd South Norfolk derailment that resulted in a chemical fire and release of hazardous materials in eastern Ohio, the derailment could have been avoided had certain safety precautions been taken. , several senators and experts said on Wednesday.
Voluntary standards, such as using Norfolk Southern’s app to report potential rail problems internally, have proven insufficient, said US Sen. JD Vance, an Ohio Republican.
“If the app was good enough, why did it fail in East Palestine?” Vance said. “If the app provided proper notice, then why did firefighters in my state go out to put out a chemical fire seven weeks ago without knowing what was in there?”
Misty Allison, a resident of East Palestine, spoke to the group about the long-term effects of the crash on a village of 4,700 people. The derailment left unresolved questions about the level of toxic chemicals in the area, the destruction of home values and the damage to residents’ mental health, she said.
“My 7-year-old son asked me if he would die living in his own house,” she said. What will I tell him?
Allison pleaded with the committee to “support sound safety regulation so this doesn’t happen again.”
“Bilateral interest” in rail safety overhaul
Vance and Ohio Senior U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, have drafted a bill to update railroad safety standards that could be a template for bipartisan reform this year.
Senior Republican Ted Cruz of Texas said he supported several elements of the bill but objected to parts of it that he said would give the US Department of Transportation too much power.
Cruz, who sought the Republican nomination for president in 2016, led part of the hearing again criticizing the response to the derailment of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who ran for the Democratic nomination in 2020.
However, Cruz is optimistic about the progress of the rail safety bill.
“I think both parties are interested in changing the railway safety legislation,” he said. “I think we’ll be successful with that.”
Agreement on communication, monitoring, inspections
The senators agreed on some rail safety issues.
Officials in eastern Palestine should have been given advance notice that a train carrying hazardous materials was heading towards them, senators and witnesses at a hearing said Wednesday. Rescuers should have known they were fighting a chemical fire, they said, and were better prepared for the task thanks to improved training and equipment.
“People deserve to know what chemicals are moving in their communities and how to stay safe in an emergency,” said National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy. “This includes the lifeguards who risk their lives for each and every one of us every single day. They deserve to be prepared.”
This means they must have access to real-time information and the right means of communication and planning, she said.
Brown said he is working to create a fund to train firefighters on how to manage fires with hazardous materials. According to him, the firefighters who put out the fire in East Palestine were almost entirely volunteers.
The fund will be paid for by railroads and chemical companies, he said.
Cruz also drew attention to the problems with how railroads control the temperature of trains.
Norfolk Southern equipment recorded a temperature rise of more than 60 degrees for 10 miles minutes before the train’s arrival in eastern Palestine, Cruz said, asking Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw why the temperature spike “has not prompted action.”
The higher temperature was still below the “alarm threshold”, according to Shaw. It was Norfolk Southern’s practice, he said, to stop trains when they reached 200 degrees above ambient temperature, regardless of the trend.
The train, although it went from 38 degrees above ambient temperature to 103 degrees above, did not reach that threshold, Shaw said.
Clyde Whitaker, legislative director of the Ohio Sheet Metal Air Rail Union, said more attention should be paid to how quickly a train heats up.
“Once it gets popular, we need to go and check it out,” Whitaker told the group.
Committee chair Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, and Vance criticized Norfolk Southern’s policy, outlined in a Norfolk Southern document that Cantwell said was provided to the committee, to spend about 30 seconds checking the security of each side of a train car.
Shaw said there was no such time limit, but Cantwell said the document showed otherwise.
According to Whitaker, this time was not enough for a proper investigation.
The railroad chief apologizes
As in other Senate hearings this month, Shaw again apologized to the East Palestine area and vowed to “fix everything.” The railroad is continuing cleanup work and is providing hotel rooms and supplies to local residents, he said.
After the crash, Norfolk Southern spent $24 million to support the community, he said. The railroad is in the planning stages of establishing a long-term medical compensation fund, a property value assurance program and a water testing program, he said.
But he refused to fully endorse the Brown-Vance rail safety bill, saying he supported some parts of it, but not all.
Pressed by Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar to say which parts he did not support, Shaw began to say what he agreed with. Klobuchar said she would try to get a more complete answer in writing.
Emerging remotely from an East Palestine high school library, Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine thanked the sponsors of the bill and urged Congress to take immediate action.
He also demanded that Norfolk Southern bring the community together.
“Norfolk Southern has a commitment to rebuilding this community,” DeWine said. “It was their training, their footprints, their accident. They are responsible for this tragedy. … Norfolk Southern must do everything in its power to bring everything back to the way it was in East Palestine.”
Labor force and profit
The Brown-Vance bill would require two work crews on some trains, forcing railroads to hire workers after drastically reducing the workforce in recent years. Between 2017 and 2021, the industry reduced its workforce by 22%, Cantwell said.
The industry has also scaled back its training program, Whitaker said. When he started working as a railroad worker in 2000, he had 26 weeks of training. Now the standard is six weeks, he said.
“We are transporting trains of more than 200 wagons with hazardous materials,” he said. “That’s not right. You’re putting too much pressure on employees right now because of not enough training.”
Whitaker also said he supported the rule that every train must have at least two workers. The railroad industry opposed this rule.
Several Democrats in the group criticized the railroad industry for offering share buybacks instead of investing in safety.
Senator Peter Welch of Vermont demanded that Shaw suspend the share buyback until the railroads had completed their job of cleaning up East Palestine.
Shaw refused, stating that “stock buybacks never come at the expense of security.” The railroad spends about $1 billion a year on safety programs, he said.
Schumer renews call for NTSB investigation
In a speech Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer renewed his request for an NTSB investigation into safety culture on all major U.S. railroads and said he hoped Homendy would commit to such an investigation during the hearing.
No senator directly asked Homendy about this possibility, and she did not conduct an industry-wide investigation.
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