Railroad unions are backing freight train safety legislation in Congress and at least 20 states in the wake of multiple train derailments and a fatal accident, but the industry and some Republicans are already expressing skepticism about major bipartisan legislation in the Senate.
The sense of urgency looming over the brewing legislative battle ballooned on Tuesday after a locomotive conductor was killed in an early morning collision in Cleveland, Ohio, the third major incident involving a Norfolk Southern train in Ohio this year. Louis Shuster, 46, suffered fatal injuries after a large dump truck struck a train at a crossing in a steel complex, according to preliminary reports. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which recently declared that all train accidents are “preventable,” is investigating the collision.
In separate incidents, two Norfolk Southern trains also derailed and caused major crashes in Ohio so far this year. The derailment that caused a hazardous chemical fire and spill in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3 left a rural community contending with an environmental disaster that sent politicians in both parties into a frenzy of political finger pointing.
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw is slated to testify before a Senate committee on Thursday in what is expected to be a blockbuster hearing. Citing a list of five recent “significant incidents” involving Norfolk Southern trains, the NTSB announced a special investigation into the company’s “organization and safety culture” on Tuesday.
“The big railroads have weakened safety rules or resisted safety rules for years,” Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown said on Sunday in an interview on ABC News. “But you’d think a disaster that happened in East Palestine would have gotten their attention.”
Along with Ohio Republican Sen. J.D. Vance and lawmakers across the political spectrum, Brown recently introduced the Railway Safety Act of 2023, a bill that would bolster safety regulations with a focus on trains carrying hazardous materials and increase fines for powerful freight companies that run afoul of the rules. Railroad workers slammed President Joe Biden in December for signing legislation that blocked their right to strike after months of tense contract negotiations, but the president has called on carriers to meet worker demands and is firmly behind the bill.
The Railway Safety Act would empower regulators to set train length limits for the first time — the train that derailed in East Palestine was nearly two miles long — along with weight limits and a requirement that trains have at least two crew members onboard for long rides. The bill would also set tougher standards for tank cars carrying hazardous materials and set new standards for maintenance and “wayside detectors” that search for defects such as the overheated axle bearing that most likely caused the derailment in East Palestine.
Unions representing locomotive engineers and other workers say the legislation should be strengthened to close potential loopholes and address longstanding complaints about long hours, inadequate staffing levels and a lack of paid sick leave that nearly led to a nationwide rail strike last year. However, the current political momentum still offers a rare chance at reform, and unions are lining up behind the Railroad Safety Act and state-level legislation while pushing for improvements.
“If the language is not precise, the Class I railroads will avoid the scope of the law without violating the law, yet again putting the safety of our members and American communities into harm’s way,” said Eddie Hall, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, in a statement. “You can run a freight train through the loopholes.”
Congress has not passed railroad safety legislation since the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which left out critical safety provisions while others it contains are rarely enforced, according to Matt Weaver, a member of the labor advocacy group Railroad Workers United.
“We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win major safety improvements to the rail industry in the U.S.,” Weaver said in a statement this week.
However, the bill is facing pushback from Republicans wary of new regulations that would empower the Department of Transportation, where Secretary Pete Buttigieg, an openly gay Democrat and former presidential candidate, became the target of right-wing misinformation and homophobic attacks after the derailment and spill in East Palestine.
“We’ll take a look at what’s being proposed, but an immediate quick response heavy on regulation needs to be thoughtful and targeted,” said Sen. John Thune (South Dakota), a top Senate Republican, in an interview with The Hill.
Railroad unions are also skeptical of federal regulators but for far different reasons. They say profit-driven railroad carriers have blocked and undermined federal safety rules for years, and the legislation gives federal regulators too much leeway in defining and enforcing new safety standards, a process that allows carriers to wield significant influence.
Industry groups and carrier companies such as Norfolk Southern spent $24.6 million on lobbying in 2022 alone and successfully pushed the Trump administration in 2018 to ditch regulations that would have required updated braking systems on freight trains carrying explosive fossil fuels, for example. The industry has also fought regulation at the state level, where lawmakers recently introduced a flurry of railroad safety legislation as East Palestine made national headlines.
“While the Railway Safety Act of 2023 has potential, railroad workers are concerned with what is glaringly left out of the bill and what aspects are left to the Department of Transportation and Federal Railroad Administration to draft, implement, and administer,” Weaver said.
The Association of American Railroads, which lobbies for rail carriers, has been careful not to say whether it supports or opposes the Railroad Safety Act. In a statement to Truthout, the spokesperson said the industry group supports “fact-driven policies that address the cause of this accident and enhance safety” but insisted that the safety standards in the bill “would not prevent a similar accident in the future,” an apparent reference to the derailment in East Palestine.
“We cannot squander this historic opportunity,” said Nic Wurst, the recording secretary at Railroad Workers United. “Citizens and elected representatives of all political persuasions are outraged at the behavior of the nation’s big and powerful railroads. They want and demand safe train operations. We can do this!”
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