Another Norfolk Southern freight train derailment was reported on Thursday as CEO Alan Shaw testified before the Senate Environment and Public Health Committee examining the earlier derailment of a train carrying hazardous chemicals that caused an environmental disaster in East Palestine, Ohio.
Shaw apologized multiple times to the residents of East Palestine but avoided making firm commitments to paying for long-term damages and health costs, instead repeatedly asserting that Norfolk Southern is committed to “doing what’s right.” Pressed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Shaw also stopped short of committing to providing at least seven paid sick days per year to all of its workers, a major sticking point in contentious negotiations with craft unions that nearly led to a nationwide rail strike last year.
“I share your focus on our employees. I will commit to continue to discuss with them important quality of life issues with our craft employees,” Shaw said as Sanders peppered him with questions.
“With all due respect, you sound like a politician here, Mr. Shaw,” Sanders replied. “It’s not a deal. Paid sick days is not a radical concept in the year 2023. I am not hearing you make that commitment to all of your workers. Clearly, we need that commitment for everyone in America.”
In the middle of the hearing, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) relayed news reports that a Norfolk Southern train had derailed and crashed in Alabama. It was the third derailment of a Norfolk Southern train since the derailment in East Palestine on February 3 that resulted in a massive chemical fire and a “controlled burn” that left thousands of residents worried about toxic contamination. Like the second Norfolk Southern derailment in Ohio on Saturday, the derailed cars in Alabama fortunately were not carrying hazardous materials.
“You may need to take a look at that,” Whitehouse told Shaw.
Beyond the many communities bisected by railroads and trains on a daily basis, the public is just beginning to learn about how often freight trains fall off the tracks or collide with vehicles. A CSX train also derailed this week after apparently hitting a rockslide in West Virginia, which sent burning cars tumbling into a river.
Citing a list of five recent “significant incidents” involving Norfolk Southern trains, including collisions that killed or injured workers, the National Transportation Safety Board announced a special investigation into the company’s “organization and safety culture” on Tuesday. That list includes a fatal collision in Cleveland this week that left a train conductor dead but does not include the latest derailment in Alabama.
Labor advocates say the entire railroad system needs an overhaul in favor of the people who work and maintain the tracks. A bipartisan group of senators recently introduced the Railway Safety Act of 2023 to bolster safety standards and fines for carriers that break the rules, especially for train cars carrying hazardous materials. Unions are backing the bill while pushing for improvements such as guaranteeing all railroad workers paid sick leave and time to rest, but the industry and some Republicans are skeptical of new regulation.
Sen. J.D. Vance, a populist Republican who introduced the bill with Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown, both of Ohio, said the train industry received a federal “bailout” when Congress and President Joe Biden stepped in to block a nationwide rail strike in December. The rail industry and its lobbyists enjoy special privileges from the government, Vance said, and then turn around and resist safety regulation. He urged his fellow Republicans to stop resisting the legislation.
“Are we for big business and big government or are we with the people of East Palestine?” Vance said.
Shaw said Norfolk Southern supports certain provisions in the bill, but these provisions mainly cover issues the company is already tackling as part of a six-point safety plan the company released amid national media attention in the wake of the East Palestine disaster. Ted Greener, a spokesperson for the lobbying group Association of American Railroads (AAR), said the industry “is not waiting for legislation or regulations.”
“The industry recently announced among other things the addition of approximately 1,000 hot bearing detectors and tightening the spacing between them, which is one issue specifically identified in the Vance-Brown legislation,” Greener said in an email.
However, AAR continues to oppose the legislation’s requirement that at least two crew members be onboard a freight train for long rides, a proposal emphatically backed by unions and also under consideration within the Biden administration. In fact, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) recently urged lawmakers to strengthen the legislation so the industry is unable to exploit loopholes to maintain their “Precision Railroad Scheduling” system, which is often blamed for an exhausted workforce.
“You can run a freight train through the loopholes,” BLET National President Eddie Hall said in a recent statement.
Whitehouse and others on the Senate committee pointed out that rail carrier companies such as Norfolk Southern, CSX and Union Pacific spend tens of millions of dollars each year on lobbying, often against regulations. Norfolk Southern spent up to $4 billion on stock buybacks last year, part of a $10 billion program aimed at raising share price, and Shaw confirmed that the company made at least $3 billion in profits in 2022.
Lawmakers accused the industry of significantly reducing its workforce over the past decade and profits soared.
“Norfolk’s profits went up and up and up, and look what happened,” Brown said.
Shaw claimed the company spent over $1 billion on safety improvements last year, when the company had a better safety record. Shaw also said the $21 million his company has invested in relief for residents of East Palestine and surrounding communities is “just a down payment,” but he avoided committing to compensating people for health care and for the loss of home values over the long term.
Shaw, who became CEO of Norfolk Southern in May 2022, told the committee that the company is “charting a new course” under his leadership and putting long-term investments in safety over short-term profits. Lawmakers, and especially Democrats, remained unconvinced that the company would live up to its promises and work with regulators and lawmakers on tougher safety standards. Sanders vowed to continue pursuing paid sick leave legislation for railroad workers.
“You’re not having a good month,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) said to Shaw during the hearing. “It seems like every week there is another accident that Norfolk Southern is a part of in this country, so you might think you are putting in enough, but the facts are saying the exact opposite with what is happening.”
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