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Rail News: Federal Legislation & Regulation

Buttigieg calls on railroads to improve safety now; NS updates latest actions in Ohio

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg
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Editor's note: This story has been updated with a comment from the Association of American Railroads.

In the aftermath of the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern Railway train derailment in Ohio, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg today called on the freight-rail industry to take immediate "commonsense" steps to improve accountability and safety.

Among the immediate steps, Buttigieg said railroads should accelerate the phase-in of safer tank cars, known as DOT 117s, and provide rail workers with paid sick leave. He also called on Congress to increase maximum fines that the U.S. Department of Transportation can issue to rail companies for violating safety regulations up from the current maximum fine of $225,455.

Further, the transportation secretary said the USDOT will advance the train-crew size rule requiring two-person crews on every train and initiate a focused safety inspection program on routes over which trains with large amounts of hazardous materials travel.

"We at USDOT are doing everything in our power to improve rail safety, and we insist that the rail industry do the same — while inviting Congress to work with us to raise the bar," Buttigieg said in a press release.

In addition to those steps, Buttigieg called on NS and the entire freight-rail industry to immediately:

• protect workers who spot safety issues from reprisal by joining the Federal Railroad Administration's Confidential Close Call Reporting Program, which allows railroads and their employees to report unsafe events and conditions without fear of negative consequences from the FRA or reprisal from their employers. "To date, Amtrak [and] many commuter-rail and short line companies are part of this program, but not a single Class I railroad participates. This must change immediately," Buttigieg's press release stated;

• deploy new inspection technologies without seeking permission to abandon human inspections. "The removal of human inspections has been a top priority for the rail lobbyists. Recent waiver requests around technology like automated track inspection have been framed by [the] industry to set up a false choice between technology and human oversight. We need both to keep our nation’s railroads safe," the press release stated;

• require tank-car owners and operators to expedite the phase-in of DOT-117s in advance of the federally mandated 2029 deadline; and

• provide proactive advance notice to state emergency response teams when transporting hazardous gas tank cars through their states "instead of expecting first responders to look up this information after an incident occurs."

Buttigieg's entire release, which includes additional steps that his department will take, can be read here.

In response to Buttigieg's announcement, Association of American Railroads President and CEO Ian Jefferies said railroads "are steadfastly committed to solutions-oriented steps that directly address the case of the accident and could prevent a similar accident prevent a similar accident from occurring elsewhere."

"Politics and speculation" should not interfere with the National Transportation Safety Board's ongoing investigation into the cause of the derailment, Jefferies added in a press release.

" All stakeholders — railroads along with federal, state and local officials — must work to restore the public's trust in the safety and security of our communities," said Jefferies. "We can only do that by letting the facts drive the post-accident response. At this time, the focus must be on the most pressing issue at hand — ensuring the community of East Palestine has all the support they need as it moves forward."

Meanwhile, NS yesterday announced its progress in helping the East Palestine community recover from the train derailment. The announcement follows NS President and CEO Alan Shaw's Feb. 18 visit to the community.

The additional support includes a new resource for residents to seek information on the environmental cleanup and other services available at the NS-established Family Assistance Center. The center has served more than 2,200 families over the past weekend. Since establishing the center on Feb. 4, NS has made more than $3.4 million in direct payments to residents impacted by the incident.

The company also announced:

• 15,000 pounds of contaminated soil and 1.1 million gallons of contaminated water have already been excavated from the derailment site. The material will be transported to landfills and disposal facilities that are designed to accept it safely in accordance with state and federal regulations. 

• A series of pumps have been placed upstream to reroute the Sulphur Run stream around the derailment site. The affected portion of Sulphur Run has been dammed to protect water downstream. Environmental teams are treating the impacted portions of Sulphur Run with booms, aeration and carbon filtration units. Those teams are also working with stream experts to collect soil and groundwater samples to develop a comprehensive plan to address any contamination that remains in the stream banks and sediment.

• The majority of the hazardous rail cars have been decontaminated and are being held on-site to allow the National Transportation Safety Board to continue its investigation. Once that is completed, the cars will be scrapped and moved off-site for disposal.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

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