Well, that didn’t take long.
In the last issue, we predicted that there would be serious consequences for the railroads arising from the Norfolk Southern (NS) derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. It happened more quickly than we had anticipated, and resulted in prospective regulatory policy and legislative changes in that could impact all of us.
The fallout rapidly spread far beyond the topics of railroad safety practices and regulation to encompass employment policies, along with operational and financial management practices at the nation’s largest freight railroads.
The rail safety issue even arose in the opposition voiced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) in the weeks prior to the Surface Transportation Board’s decision to approve a merger between the Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern railroads.
Before the board acted to okay the merger in mid- March, Sen. Warren urged the STB act to block it, stating that the combination would cause greater concentration in an industry that didn’t need any more, having an “adverse impact on competition, service disruptions, jobs and rail safety.”
The Ohio derailment already had drawn a growing number of substantial lawsuits and federal investigations, with fines for NS and new regulations in the offing for the entire industry.
Not long after Norfolk Southern announced an extensive new safety program, the Association of American Railroads, which is made up of North America’s Class 1 railroads, launched its own new safety agenda that all of its members have agreed to observe. The sheer ambition of the plan gives an indication of how the Ohio incident is reshaping the industry’s reaction to public and political attitudes toward the rail industry.
In the immediate aftermath of the Ohio incident, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg seemed to belittle its importance by pointing out that railroads experience more than a thousand derailments each year.
By contrast, the AAR safety plan announced a goal of zero accidents and injuries, embracing a zero-based safety approach that has been adopted over the past 30 years by policymakers and government officials in Europe and North America for traffic safety on roads and highways. This embrace of zero-based planning already was taken up by federal agencies, states, and municipalities.
Immediate actions in the AAR safety plan in the short term include paying much closer attention to remote sensors that detect overheated bearings in wheel assemblies (which may have been the cause of the Ohio derailment) and making improvements in tank car design.
All seven Class I railroads are joining the Federal Railroad Administration’s voluntary program for reporting of safety issues and gathering real-time data on the contents of each railcar.
The zero-based approach was previously endorsed by the Federal Highway Administration and applied to road design and highway planning, while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration applies it when addressing vehicle design.
Soon after she took office, National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy endorsed the zero-based approach in regard to highway safety. Following the Ohio incident, she declared that “This was 100% preventable. We call things accidents. There is no accident. Every single event that we investigate is preventable.”
FRA Gets Ready to Act
Look for the Federal Railroad Administration to act as well. By instituting new equipment regulations. The NTSB an NS union believe wheel bearings in overheated, causing a fire and derailment.
The rail union also blamed the railroad’s failure to adequately maintain remote sensors place along the track that are expected to locate and report overheating bearings (also called hotboxes), and all but one of them were found not to be working.
As a result, FRA issued an advisory warning to railroads, urging them 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 as far back as 2015.
In addition, the agency announced on March 2 that it would conduct a nationwide inspection of rail lines that are used by high-hazard flammable trains (HHFTs) and those hauling large amounts of hazardous materials.
Railroads can expect more action after it was discovered that there were no existing federal regulations pertaining to the design and operations of these remote sensors.
Both FRA and NTSB initiated a special investigation into Norfolk Southern’s organization and safety culture, citing a string of accidents tracking back to 2021, and including an NS employee’s death a month after the Ohio event.
As expected, members of Congress quickly entered the fray as well, with as small bipartisan group of senators introducing legislation aimed at improving rail safety, including employment practices.
“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), who introduced the bill along with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
The Senate measure would boost fines for safety violations and stiffen the safety standards set 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 and address outstanding issues surrounding sick leave for rail workers.
Testifying at a Senate hearing on the legislation held on March 9, Alan Shaw, Chief Executive Officer of NS, reportedly declined to endorse all the provisions of the bill, but he was willing to offer that, “we are committed to the legislative intent to make rail safer” through its own safety initiatives.
Although no one has been able to firmly establish a direct link between the major railroads’ extreme cost-cutting operational model called Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) and deterioration of safety, critics including rail labor unions have blamed inadequate sick leave and overworked rail workers for degrading safety.
This was traced directly to the slashing of tens of thousands of workers from railroad payrolls that began six years ago as PSR was adopted.
Rail workers’ ire over the sick leave issue came close to shutting down the nation’s rail system in a threatened strike just before Christmas last year, which thrust the issue into public awareness. Look for question about PSR as a factor exacerbating rail safety to receive more attention in the future.
Since last year, the lingering bad feelings and negative publicity generated by the sick leave issue and possible strike also caused NS and CSX to negotiate expansion of some of their workers’ leave allowances with two of their unions.
The NS agreement negotiated with the two unions was publicly announced just three days following the Ohio derailment.