WASHINGTON – A fire and chemical spill that caused a Norfolk Southern train derailment in Ohio has renewed a more than decade-long battle over ways to strengthen rail safety in Washington.
The cause of the derailment in East Palestine is still under investigation, with a preliminary report pointing to a hot wheel bearing.
But as investigators search for the cause and how it could have been prevented, there is speculation and finger-pointing among lawmakers and regulators. Congressional Republicans have questioned the Biden administration’s record on rail safety over the past two years, while administration officials say their efforts have been hindered by industry lawsuits and corporate lobbyists.
“The future doesn’t have to be like the past when it comes to your company and your industry’s strong safety policies,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a letter Sunday to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw. “There have been calls for reform following major derailments in the past – and there has been vehement resistance by your industry to increased safety measures. This has to change.”
Major rail accidents have prompted Congress and federal regulators to act in the past, although the efforts have had mixed results. When a commuter train and a freight train collided head-on in Los Angeles in 2008, killing 25 people, Congress mandated that a safety system called positive train control be installed more widely across the rail system.
Several derailments during the Obama administration — including one in New Jersey that released thousands of gallons of vinyl chloride, the same chemical released in the recent Ohio accident — have also prompted new safety proposals, but not all has not been enacted.
A rule proposed in 2015 to update some trains to electronically controlled pneumatic brakes was met with fierce opposition from the railway industry, which filed a string of lawsuits citing issues found with the braking system and Questions surround the Department of Transportation’s method for evaluating safety benefits.
Later that year, amid lobbying from the railroad industry, Congress took steps to have federal regulators improve their testing of braking systems and re-issue the rule, if the brakes were found to still provide a benefit, for years. slowed down the process. As of 2018, when the rule had still not gone into effect, it was withdrawn by the Trump administration.
“Last time we saw a series of high-profile incidents, we took strong action and there was a flood of lawsuits,” a Biden administration official told reporters last week.
The American Association of Railroads, the industry’s main lobbying group, said electronically controlled pneumatic brakes were shown in testing to have “a significant failure rate” and the required repair times were “too long to make them practical.” The group said failure of the brake system could render trains unusable, disrupting the flow of other cargo.
Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said in a tweet last week that the braking system requirement did not apply to the Norfolk Southern train that derailed in Ohio because it was classified as a “mixed freight train,” not A “high-risk inflammable train”, which was included in the rule.
Biden administration officials said they will wait until the NTSB completes its investigation in Ohio before proposing new safety measures, but ultimately believe the fastest, most effective way to improve rail safety is through congressional action. Will be through.
“The fastest way to address and strengthen the regulations is for Congress to act,” a Biden administration official said Friday. “If there is renewed interest from the Congress, we fully welcome it and stand ready to support their efforts. A rulemaking typically takes years because it requires not only coming up with a rule but opening it up to public comment, completing a cost-benefit analysis, and then facing the legal battles that often ensue. takes it even further. On the other hand, Congress can act unilaterally and basically avoid that process.”
Members of Congress are pointing fingers at who is to blame in Ohio, Democrats are attacking the railroad industry and Republicans are raising questions about the Biden administration’s oversight.
“Corporations do stock buybacks, they make big dividend checks, they lay off workers – thousands of workers have been laid off from Norfolk Southern – then they don’t invest in safety regulations and safety regulations, and that sort of thing. Things happen,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said Sunday on CNN.
Republicans, including Ohio Sen. JD Vance, have accused the Biden administration of trying to shift blame to the Trump administration. Vance, along with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has asked the Department of Transportation to do more, including estimating minimum staffing levels on trains under a staffing model used by the industry called Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR). ) is called. Senators said only two employees and an intern were on board the 150-car train that derailed in Ohio.
“We express concern with the PSR as well as with this administration’s prioritization of efficiency over resiliency in our national infrastructure and transportation systems,” Vance and Rubio wrote. “By that token, it is not unreasonable to ask whether a crew with two railroad employees as an apprentice is capable of effectively monitoring 150 cars.”
The administration is in the process of finalizing a regulation introduced last year that would require at least two crew members for most rail operations. A similar effort was made in 2016 under the Trump administration, but the administration later withdrew, saying it was no longer needed.
Current and former railway officials said that despite the increase in the amount of freight carried on the railways, railway operators have been cutting staff over the past decade. The pandemic exacerbated the problem as they did not return to their old jobs when demand dropped as freight levels temporarily fell.
A report last December from the Government Accountability Office found that the total number of employees at the seven largest freight railroads is set to decrease by about 28% from 2011 to 2021, while the length of trains has increased, allowing for fewer workers. More responsibility has been added.
A former railroad safety official during the Bush and Obama administrations said, “Management began looking for ways to cut costs, bring cash to the bottom line, and eventually cut about 30% of the workforce from top to bottom.” condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. “Then 2020 happened and the great resignation guys didn’t come back when traffic came back. The industry found itself in a difficult situation indeed. They tried to get the staff to back up, but in most cases, that’s easier said than done.
The American Association of Railroads says it is urging the public to wait until the NTSB investigation is complete before drawing conclusions.
“As the NTSB’s work continues, any speculation as to the cause or contributing factors of the incident remains just that — speculation — and undermines the overall fact-gathering process,” the industry group said in a statement. “Additionally, the immediate push for legislative or regulatory action absent the NTSB consequences and response to the accident is premature at best – and opportunistic at worst.”
The group stated that 99.9% of all hazmat shipments reach their destination without incident and that the hazmat accident rate has declined by 55% since 2012.
In addition to congressional action or new federal regulations, administration officials said they also expect some of the $550 billion from infrastructure legislation passed in 2021 to help the railroads improve overall safety. The legislation includes $4 billion in discretionary funding for rail safety and train crossing improvements.
Buttigieg said the Biden administration would also issue any civil penalties to Norfolk Southern if the NTSB investigation finds any laws were broken.
“I want to make sure you are aware that the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is conducting its own analysis to determine whether a safety breach has occurred,” he said in the letter to Norfolk Southern. . “Using this analysis and receiving findings from the NTSB’s independent work, FRA will work with all of its legal authorities to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for any safety violations that contributed to this derailment.” Is.”