Renewed calls to pass rail safety reform one year after East Palestine train derailment

It’s hard to forget those big plumes of smoke after a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous material derailed in East Palestine, Ohio on February 3, 2023.

The crash led to the railroad’s CEO facing Congress last March.

“I want to start today by saying how deeply sorry I am for the impact this derailment has had on the residents of east Palestine and the surrounding communities,” said Alan Shaw, Norfolk Southern President & CEO last spring.

Shortly after the crash Senators from Ohio and Pennsylvania, both Democrats and Republicans, introduced a new bill to boost safety measures for trains carrying dangerous materials.

It would create requirements for detectors that take the temperature of each railcar wheel as it passes. This was an issue in the East Palestine crash.

“We’ve got way too many train crashes as long as you got all these train crashes, what happened in East Palestine is going to keep on happening,” said Sen. J. D. Vance, R – Ohio.

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“We aren’t letting Norfolk southern get away with it again. We aren’t going to let them dismiss another vibrant, heartland town as collateral damage,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D – Ohio.

But one year later, this bill still hasn’t passed the Senate and it’s uncertain when it could come up for a vote.  Federal data also shows there’s been more than 1,500 rail incidents since East Palestine.

In a statement, a Norfolk southern spokesperson said, “We are committed to working across the industry to make the rail industry even safer. We are not waiting for legislation to act.”

The company said some of those steps include joining the federal Confidential Close Call reporting system. This is a new pilot program that allows employees to anonymously report near-misses or close calls.

The railroad has also spent tens of millions of dollars cleaning up the area.

“I am determined to make this right,” said Shaw during a congressional hearing.

The White House says President Biden will visit East Palestine this month. This visit would be his first to the area since that derailment.

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Full statement from the Association of American Railroad, which represents railroad companies:

Railroads and policymakers share the same goal of making the rail network even safer. The industry is dedicated to advancing safety through our own initiatives and in collaboration with policymakers.

Despite some reports to the contrary, railroads have never opposed the Railway Safety Act (RSA). We’ve engaged policymakers on both sides of the aisle in open, productive conversations that have resulted in meaningful updates that advance rail safety without hindering innovation. The national rail network is complex and requires surgical precision when it comes to policies affecting its daily operations. Since the East Palestine incident, our communications with policymakers have been clear that railroads aim to advance the safety conversation – not stand in the way of legislation.

The industry has and will continue to engage in good-faith conversations about how legislation can improve safety, encourage innovation and keep the supply chain moving.

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Full statement from Norfolk Southern:

We support legislative efforts to enhance the safety of the freight rail industry. We are committed to working across the industry to make the rail industry even safer. We are not waiting for legislation to act. We made significant progress in 2023. In numbers reported to the FRA, our accident rate decreased by 10%, and our mainline accident rate decreased over 40%.

The actions we’ve taken on safety are wide-ranging. We:

  • Are the first class I railroad to join an FRA C3RS pilot program in partnership with our labor unions and FRA, part of our demonstrated collaboration with our craft colleagues.

  • Have worked to further first responders’ access to real-time train consist information through our partnership with RapidSOS, pushing consist information directly to first responders within minutes of an incident.

  • Have increased access to training for first responders, providing training to more than 5,000 first responders in 2023 and adding additional stops to our Safety Train schedule in 2024. Construction will also continue on a regional training facility in Ohio.

  • Launched a next-generation digital inspection portal to add an additional layer to train inspections. We plan to have 20 across our network for broad coverage.

  • Adopted industry standards, set by the AAR, on HBD temperature thresholds.

  • Are on track to complete our goal of shortening the distance between hot hearing detectors (HBDs) on our core network to approximately 11 miles apart by the end of 2024. To date, we have installed more than 115 new HBDs on our network.

  • We’re piloting next-generation HBDs and working to see how thermal cameras can supplement our existing tech in this area.

  • In an unprecedented move in the rail and transport industry, appointed an independent safety consultant - Atkins Nuclear Secured, made up of former Navy Nuclear professionals - to review our standards and practices.

  • Are collaborating with unions and their leaders to enhance our safety culture.

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