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Buttigieg and labor leaders urge Congress to pass railroad safety legislation


WASHINGTON – Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the leaders of all 13 railroad labor unions today urged Congress to tighten rail safety regulations as the one-year anniversary of the disastrous derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, approaches.

The Railway Safety Act, introduced in the Senate last spring in the aftermath of the Norfolk Southern hazardous materials wreck, has not moved out of committee, while the House only held a rail safety hearing last month, Buttigieg noted during a webcast with the labor leaders and members of the media.


Head and shoulders short of man in coat and tie
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg

“Notably, one year later, Congress still has not acted to pass the bipartisan Railway Safety Act, which would be a decisive victory for rail worker safety and the ability to hold railroad corporations accountable,” Buttigieg says.

Congress used to take action after railroad wrecks, he says, noting the improved tank car safety regulations that followed the runaway oil train derailment that killed 47 people in Lac Megantic, Quebec, in 2013.

The Railway Safety Act would, among other things, tighten regulation of trains carrying hazardous materials, regulate wayside detectors for the first time, impose caps on train length and weight, and increase penalties for railroads that violate safety rules.

Some members of Congress have said they should await the National Transportation Safety Board’s final report on the East Palestine derailment before passing legislation. The NTSB has said it’s likely that the derailment was caused by the catastrophic failure of a wheel bearing on a covered hopper car.

The NTSB says its investigation is focusing on the wheelset and bearing that failed; tank car design and derailment damage; a review of the accident response, including the venting and burning of the vinyl chloride; railcar design and maintenance procedures and practices; NS use of wayside defect detectors; and NS railcar inspection practices. The report is due out this spring or summer, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy told Congress last month.

While Congressional action is stalled, the Federal Railroad Administration has taken several steps to increase its oversight of rail safety, Buttigieg says. They include requiring railroads to provide emergency breathing equipment for train crews; a requirement for railroads to provide hazardous materials data to first responders in real time following a derailment; a proposal to require certification of dispatchers and signal maintainers; and proposing a rule that would require a two-person crew for most freight trains.

Buttigieg praised Norfolk Southern for joining the Confidential Close Call Reporting system this week and urged the other Class I’s to participate, as well. The Association of American Railroads has said the Class I systems must first get assurances that employees won’t use the confidential reporting system to avoid accountability for repeated violations of safety rules.

Rail labor leaders say that another derailment like East Palestine is bound to happen without tighter safety regulations and a changed safety culture at the Class I railroads.

Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Division of the AFL-CIO, said the East Palestine wreck was the culmination of years of degraded safety at the big railroads.

Tony Cardwell, president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Maintenance of Way Employees, said NS and CSX are moving in the right direction on safety. But he said Union Pacific is moving backward under new CEO Jim Vena, who has continued layoffs of maintenance and inspection workers.

Mike Baldwin, president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, claimed that as many as half of UP’s wayside defect detectors are out of service on any given day, and that repairing and inspecting them is always placed last on the to-do list because, unlike signal systems, they are not subject to federal regulations.

UP disputed the union leaders’ claims.

“The allegation is false. Union Pacific is a leader in track inspections, and we take great pride in our work. Technology is a vital part of our safety initiatives, and the real-time data we receive from wayside detectors is critical in our decision making, allowing us to quickly address potential risk and keep trains moving to their destination,” a railroad spokeswoman says. “We are very disappointed that people with the ability to contact us directly to get the facts are spreading misinformation about our safety systems and their importance.”

UP has said that the temporary furlough of some track workers in December was not unusual as seasonal track work programs wind down.

The AAR notes that since the East Palestine derailment the Class I railroads have adopted common and lower hotbox temperature alert thresholds, installed hundreds of additional hot bearing detectors – with more to come this year – and developed an industrywide rule that covers trend analysis of defect detector data.