As we reported in the last issue, Congress and the Biden administration have begun taking a closer look at railroad safety in the United States and how it can be improved. Since then, we have gotten a clearer view of where they are heading.
A full report on the cause of the accident will not be forthcoming from the National Transportation Safety Board for months, as has been the case historically. However, that did not stop NTSB Chairman Jennifer Homendy from making her own ‘rush to judgment.’
“I can tell you this much: This was 100% preventable,” Chairman Homendy said at a Feb. 23 press conference. “We call things accidents. There is no accident. Every single event that we investigate is preventable. Know that the NTSB has one goal, and that is safety and ensuring that this never happens again.”
Earlier reports said NTSB is focusing on overheated ball bearings and a broken axle. Two rail unions blame Norfolk Southern’s adherence the radical cost cutting model called Precision Scheduled Railroading for not maintaining remote sensing devices that monitor the bearings for overheating.
On Feb. 28, the Federal Railroad Administration issued an advisory warning railroads to evaluate their policies and procedures related to the use and maintenance of hot bearing wayside detectors, referencing a series of specific hazardous materials derailments going back to 2015.
The FRA also announced on March 2 that it would conduct a nationwide inspection focusing on rail lines that are used by high-hazard flammable trains (HHFTs) and those hauling large amounts of hazardous materials.
After he visited East Palestine, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said he would ask Congress to increase the maximum fines the DOT can level on railroads for safety violations. Currently, the maximum fine for a railroad found to have violated hazardous materials regulations is $225,455, he observed.
“A six-figure penalty for a fatal incident is pretty much a rounding error for a multibillion-dollar corporation,” Buttigieg pointed out. “A pretty good place to begin would be to add a zero.”
DOT also said it is pursuing several other safety-related actions, such as:
- Advancing a rule requiring two-person train crews.
- Targeting legacy tank cars – especially those carrying hazmats – for inspections and safety reviews.
- Deploying resources made available by President Biden’s Infrastructure Law to upgrade and modernize rail infrastructure and to make safety improvements over the long-term.
- Evaluating new rules that would require electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes on HHFTs and other trains transporting large quantities of hazardous materials.
Democrat and Republican senators introduced legislation on March 1 that would stiffen safety standards for trains carrying hazardous materials and make rail car inspections more frequent.
In adherence to rail union wishes, the bill also would ensure that trains carrying hazmat shipments have two-person crews. The legislation also intends to boost fines for safety violations.
“Through this legislation, Congress has a real opportunity to ensure that what happened in East Palestine will never happen again,” said Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), one of the bill’s leading sponsors.
Another sponsor, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), declared, “It shouldn’t take a massive railroad disaster for elected officials to put partisanship aside and work together for the people we serve – not corporations like Norfolk Southern.”