217.370.8505 cory@bletislb.org

NS’s Shaw: ‘We Support Legislative Efforts to Enhance [Rail] Safety’

Ahead of a March 22 Senate hearing on “Improving Rail Safety in Response to the [Feb. 3] East Palestine Derailment,” Norfolk Southern (NS) President and CEO Alan H. Shaw has released his testimony, detailing the Class I’s progress on clean-up and environmental remediation, its safety initiatives and commitment to the community, and its support of “legislative efforts to enhance the safety of the freight rail industry.” According to Shaw, “financial assistance is just a down payment.”

Shaw is testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, including Committee Chair, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). According to the Committee, the hearing will cover “Norfolk Southern’s safety record and how the February 3, 2023, derailment and the controlled burn of vinyl chloride impacted the East Palestine, Ohio, community,” with witnesses discussing “suggestions for how to improve the safety of the nation’s rail network, hazardous materials transportation safety and emergency response, including the provisions of S. 576, the Railway Safety Act of 2023.”

Also providing testimony are National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chair Jennifer Homendy, Ohio Western Reserve Joint Fire District Chief David Comstock, Ohio State SMART-TD Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker, and Association of American Railroads (AAR) President and CEO Ian Jefferies. On the introduction panel are U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio); U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio); Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine; and Misti Allison, a resident of East Palestine.

In Shaw’s March 22 testimony, he said that NS is “committed to working with our fellow industry leaders to make the railroad industry a safer place, and we also recognize and appreciate the bicameral, bipartisan leadership by Members of Congress, including by members of this Committee, in proposing new legislation to create a safer rail industry. The Railway Safety Act and the RAIL Act both include measures with the potential to enhance safety and improve outcomes for our industry, our customers, and the communities we serve.”

He reported supporting the “Railway Safety Act’s provisions for more industry-funded training for first responders, and we are not waiting for legislation to move this forward. We have already announced the expansion of our existing training programs and the creation of a new regional training center in Ohio, which will serve first responders in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The first class was on March 21.”

Shaw said that NS supports “the principle that first responders need accurate real-time information on the contents of trains moving through their communities and instruction on the safe handling of those contents in the event of an accident. We intend to take a leading role getting the AskRail safety application into the hands of every first responder who needs access. In this area specifically, the details of legislation matter as policymakers balance safety enhancements with national security concerns.” (AAR on March 20 announced its expansion of AskRail.)

Shaw also said the railroad supports “triennial reviews of regulations for railcar inspections and standards for freight car safety”; the Federal Railroad Administration’s Confidential Close Call Reporting System; and “accelerating the phaseout of older tank car models, research into advanced tank car design, and additional funding for research and development on next-generation early-warning sensor technologies.”

According to Shaw, there are other aspects of the proposed legislation that NS supports “in principle.” He named “[e]stablishing performance standards, maintenance standards, and alert thresholds for safety sensors” as an example. “We have already committed to work with the industry to develop additional data-based best practices in these areas, and we welcome constructive discussion with stakeholders to craft effective and practical legislation.”

Shaw said there “are also areas in which we believe Congress could go further with safety legislation. We encourage even stricter standards for tank car design. There are significant opportunities for advanced technology to enhance rail safety, and we encourage Congress to consider additional research into on-board rail car defect detection technology.”

Additionally, NS supports “increasing fines and penalties for persons found tampering with railroad facilities and safety equipment, such as grade crossing warning devices, wayside detectors, or signal boxes,” Shaw reported. “We support codifying and enhancing the FRA’s confidential close car reporting system. And we support new requirements to ensure utility installations in railroads rights-of-way are conducted safely.”

Prior to the hearing, the Associated Press on March 21 reported that Jennifer Homendy, in prepared remarks, “says that ‘rail remains one of the safest means of transportation,’ but also points to several safety shortcomings in current regulations, including that local emergency responders are not regularly told what hazardous materials are carried on trains if they don’t qualify as a high-hazard flammable train. The train that derailed in East Palestine was not classified as highly hazardous because it fell under the threshold for the number of cars carrying a combustible liquid, such as gasoline, ethanol or acetone.”

According to the media outlet, “Homendy will push for a broader definition of high-hazard flammable trains, saying it ‘should include a broad range of hazardous materials’ and ‘that even one railcar of any hazardous material justifies notifying emergency responders.’”

Sen. Vance, according to the AP, “met with Shaw on Tuesday [March 21] ahead of the hearing and told The Associated Press it was a ‘productive conversation.’ But he added that he wanted to see the company endorse the increased fines, enhanced hazardous material reporting requirements and a mandate that detectors be installed every 10 miles (16 kilometers) to monitor for overheated bearings like the ones that caused the East Palestine derailment. ‘It’s important if these guys really want to show commitment to rail safety, to endorse the legislation,’ Vance said. ‘You don’t have to endorse every single piece of it, but to endorse the broad thrust of what we’re trying to do is important.’”