217.370.8505 cory@bletislb.org

Lawmakers should stand up to railroad lobby in name of safety

The past year has seen the rail industry in the news for all the wrong reasons, from draconian attendance policies to national railroad strikes and catastrophic derailments.

In response, railroad activists and unions have been advocating for rail safety legislation nationwide. AB456 was introduced in Nevada and, in its current form, the bill would provide for increased use of devices for detecting overheated axle bearings (a primary cause of several recent derailments, including two here in Nevada) and the regulation of blocked railroad crossings.

Another section of the bill addresses the issue of train length, a factor that the Federal Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board have begun to scrutinize to a greater degree as this factor has been identified as either a primary or contributing cause of a number of serious rail accidents.

The bill calls for reducing the length of trains to 7,500 feet as a result of multiple derailments involving excessively long trains. In 2019, there were two accidents within weeks of each other here in Nevada in which the predominant cause was cited as the excessive length and makeup of the trains involved. While these two accidents resulted in approximately $4 million in damage to railroad equipment and cargo, fortunately, they did not lead to injuries, deaths or damage to private property.

Other parts of the country have not been as fortunate, however. For instance, the recent derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, which involved 20 cars filled with highly flammable toxic chemicals, resulted in a “vent and burn” operation to dissipate the chemicals safely. Sadly, this triggered a fireball that sent a dark plume of smoke over the region, prompting the evacuation of 1,500 people.

During a hearing held by the Assembly Committee on Growth and Infrastructure in early April, railroad operating employees and emergency responders gave voice to their concerns about the so-called “precision scheduled railroading” (PSR) operating plan. PSR is a business model favored by some railroads, as it prioritizes efficiency and cost-cutting over all else, including safety and service.

Unfortunately, this includes the practice of making trains longer and heavier than ever before, sometimes stretching over 3 miles in length. As a result, safety concerns are often sidelined in the pursuit of profits — an unacceptable tradeoff, especially when human lives are at stake.

The railroad lobbyists chugged along with their argument that limiting train length would derail profits and lead to costly legal battles for the state. It seems some Nevada lawmakers are on the wrong track, favoring the influential railroad lobby over protecting the safety of their constituents.

Perhaps we should have put more steam behind emphasizing the potential dangers of a similar incident occurring in heavily populated areas such as Las Vegas or Reno, which could cause a major train wreck for the tourism industry and neighboring communities.

The railroad lobby relies on an outdated Supreme Court case, Southern Pacific Co. v. Arizona, 325 U.S. 761 (1945), to argue against the state’s ability to legislate on matters related to train length. However, the  Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 explicitly addressed this case, empowering states to regulate safety matters until the secretary of transportation assumes the duty, which has yet to happen.

As is typical of their stance, the railroads failed to address safety concerns, echoing their actions in 2019 when they opposed AB337, which requires the presence of a certified engineer and conductor on all freight trains in the state. Signed into law by former Gov. Steve Sisolak, this promotes safety in the railroad industry as well as serves as a testament to Nevada’s unwavering commitment to public safety.

Despite the evident need for government oversight to ensure railroad safety, the railroad lobby has thrown more than a staggering $700 million during the past 25 years to actively thwart such measures. These companies prefer to regulate themselves, resulting in a troubling upswing in potential disasters and increased risk-taking. It appears that the railroad lobby’s motto is “profits over prudence,” and it’s the general public who bears the burden of their recklessness.

But why wait for a disaster to happen before taking action? The pursuit of profits should not come at the cost of human lives. The effects of PSR have been a cause for concern for years, and it’s time for safety to take precedence over Wall Street’s financial gains. We will continue to sound the alarm until safety is not just a compliance requirement but a moral obligation that the industry takes seriously.

Public safety is not a partisan issue; it’s a responsibility that we all share. Our preference is to be proactive with regard to addressing legitimate concerns over rail safety rather than being left to say, ‘We warned you’ when, not if, an incident similar to East Palestine occurs in Nevada. As former Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) said in response to the rail industry’s suggestion that Congress should not be “prescriptive” in addressing concerns about rail safety, “There is a prescriptive way to get there, and it is up to us to find it.”

Conservative U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH), who is co-sponsoring bipartisan federal rail safety legislation, recently stated, “This is an industry that enjoys special subsidies that almost no industry enjoys. This is an industry that has enjoyed special legal carve-outs that almost no industry enjoys. This is an industry that just months ago had the federal government come in and save them from a labor dispute. It was effectively a bailout, and now they’re claiming before the Senate and the House that our reasonable regulation, our reasonable legislation is somehow a violation of the free market? Well, pot, meet the kettle, because that doesn’t make an ounce of sense. You cannot claim special government privileges, you cannot ask the government to bail you out and then resist basic public safety.”

It’s worth noting that several states have already implemented rail safety measures and numerous others are considering bills similar to AB456 to ensure the safety of their communities. It’s imperative that the rail industry places a greater emphasis on safety over profits. Likewise, lawmakers must stand up to the influential railroad lobby and prioritize the safety of their constituents by supporting this vital piece of legislation.

Jason Doering is a professional locomotive engineer and conductor who serves as chair and director of the Nevada State Legislative Board for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers-Transportation Division.

Matt Parker is a professional locomotive engineer who serves as chairman of the Nevada State Legislative Board for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.