Railroad pushback to safety regulations scrutinized amid East Palestine disaster
The freight rail industry’s lobbying efforts to oppose stronger safety standards are under intense scrutiny following the devastating Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
Officials are still investigating the cause of the Feb. 3 accident, in which 11 rail cars spilled hazardous chemicals that are being intentionally burned to avoid a massive explosion, prompting fears from area residents about exposure to toxic substances.
But lawmakers, federal officials and union leaders are already placing the blame on rail companies, pointing to the industry’s decades-long opposition to stricter safety regulations.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg this week called for a slew of new railroad rules, including more stringent braking requirements and larger fines for railroads that violate safety regulations.
He called on Norfolk Southern to support new rail safety rules instead of mobilizing against them.
“Rather than support these efforts to improve rail safety, Norfolk Southern and other rail companies spent millions of dollars in the courts and lobbying members of Congress to oppose common-sense safety regulations, stopping some entirely and reducing the scope of others,” Buttigieg wrote in a letter to Norfolk Southern.
“That must change,” he added.
Railroads spent big to block safety regulations
Railroads are an influential force in Congress and state legislatures, using their lobbying power to kill several regulatory proposals aimed at boosting safety.
The four largest U.S. railroads and their trade association together spent over $480 million on federal lobbying over the last two decades, according to data from nonpartisan research group OpenSecrets. Norfolk Southern actually spent the least of the top railroads, shelling out $69 million over that period.
“Rail companies have spent millions of dollars to oppose common-sense safety regulations. And it’s worked. This is more than a train derailment or a toxic waste spill — it’s years of opposition to safety measures coming home to roost,” President Joe Biden tweeted Tuesday.
Norfolk Southern and other railroads successfully lobbied Republicans in Congress to pass a measure delaying the implementation of a 2015 Obama administration rule that would have required more trains to be equipped with electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes.
Regulators say those modern systems would have boosted train safety and braking performance.
The Trump administration rescinded the rule in 2018, echoing the industry’s concerns that the costs to implement ECP brakes outweighed the benefits. An Associated Press report found that the Trump administration omitted up to $117 million in future damages from train derailments in its analysis.
Railroads object to new safety regulations
Railroads are lobbying against a proposed federal rule to mandate two-person crews, arguing that it’s unnecessary and costly.
Thousands of rail workers have submitted comments in support of the rule, arguing that accidents are more likely when they work solo.
“At what point does the greed of Wall Street outweigh the safety of the average citizen? A minimum of 2 person crews needs to be in place for the foreseeable future to protect the environment, our water supply, and life,” Colorado-based conductor Charles Noonan wrote in a comment to regulators, noting that trains carry massive amounts of hazardous materials through populated areas.
In 2021, Norfolk Southern defeated a bipartisan bill in Ohio that would have mandated two-person crews, arguing that the legislation would create legal issues by conflicting with federal law.
The company donated $98,000 to Ohio candidates over the last six years, according to an analysis from ABC 6 On Your Side.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) tweeted that Norfolk Southern should invest its lobbying budget toward supporting the reinstatement of “essential rail safety rules,” a move that’s highly unlikely to happen.
Railroads are currently lobbying against Iowa legislation to limit the maximum train length to 1.6 miles, roughly half the length of some freight trains operating today.
There are no federal regulations on train length, despite outcry from workers who say that longer trains lead to more dangerous accidents.
Buttigieg is calling on Congress to enact other reforms that will likely draw opposition from railroads.
He wants lawmakers to increase fines from the current maximum of roughly $225,000 — which Buttigieg called a “rounding error” for the top carriers — and implement stronger laws governing ECP brakes and trains carrying hazardous materials.
Would stronger rules have stopped the crash?
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) planned to release a preliminary report on the incident Thursday. Surveillance footage appeared to show a wheel bearing catching fire shortly before the derailment.
NTSB Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy noted that the Obama administration’s ECP brake rule would not have prevented the crash, as it only applied to trains carrying large quantities of highly-flammable liquids.
The threshold for that rule was at least 20 train cars of highly flammable liquid, but Norfolk Southern train was only carrying three cars of flammable gas.
“This means even if the rule had gone into effect, this train wouldn’t have had ECP brakes,” Homendy said in a tweet.
Still, union officials and workers say that faltering maintenance driven by the railroad industry’s shift toward precision scheduled railroading (PSR) — which involves using technology to move more cargo with fewer trains and workers — may have caused the failure.
Railroads have slashed their workforce by 30% since 2017
Railroads cut down on their workforce by around 30 percent over the last six years in an effort to boost profits and attract investors.
It’s worked financial wonders for Norfolk Southern, which made a record $4.8-billion profit last year and shelled out $3.4 billion on stock buybacks. But it has also angered rail workers, who complain about long hours and unpredictable schedules.
Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen National President Eddie Hall backed Buttigieg’s proposed rail reforms, but lamented that the Transportation Secretary didn’t mention PSR, which unions say has led to a reduction in thorough inspections of rail cars.
“Railroads largely self-regulate and PSR has led to irresponsible practices at the cost of safety,” Hall said in a statement. “It needs to be eliminated or reformed.”
While Norfolk Southern has committed to working with regulators to make the railroad safer, it hasn’t committed to any specific reforms.
“I’m looking forward to having discussions with our regulators and elected officials on how we can make Norfolk Southern a safer railroad,” Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw said in a televised interview with CNBC. “We’re very focused on science-based solutions.”
Shaw said that the company spends over $1 billion annually on maintenance and technology.
Meanwhile, the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s top lobbying group, is already pushing back on Buttigieg’s proposals, noting that railroads’ hazmat accident rate has decreased 55 percent over the last decade.
“The NTSB’s independent investigators continue their work to identify the accident’s root cause and contributing factors,” Association of American Railroads CEO Ian Jefferies said in a statement. “That investigation must continue unimpeded by politics and speculation so NTSB’s findings can guide what additional measures may have prevented this accident.”
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