After East Palestine derailment, efforts to improve railroad safety regulations creep along

By Sophie Young, Kent State NewsLab/Ideastream

The train derailment in East Palestine in February was high-profile because of its environmental fallout, but derailments are not uncommon. The Federal Railroad Administration reported 102 others in the United States in that month alone. 

It has been 15 years since Congress passed the Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008. No additional legislation regulating railroads has been passed since then, even though new technologies used by the railroads are changing the industry in significant ways. 

But now, bills before Congress propose provisions that would increase regulations on first-responder training, wayside detectors, inspections and the transportation of hazardous materials. 

Tracked excavators work to remove rail car debris left behind by the East Palestine freight train derailment and subsequent fire on Feb. 25, 2023. (Photo: Susan Zake)

New legislation would add more regulations

After East Palestine, two bills were introduced to add more regulations for rail: one in the House of Representatives and one in the Senate. 

Representatives Emilia Strong Sykes, D-Akron, and Bill Johnson, R-Youngstown, introduced the bipartisan RAIL Act to the House, but it’s been sitting in a subcommittee since March.

The Senate’s bill, the Railway Safety Act of 2023, was introduced by Ohio senators J.D. Vance, a Republican, and Sherrod Brown, a Democrat. It has passed committee and is awaiting consideration on the floor. 

“We have strong bipartisan support,” Brown said. “This bill will be on the Senate floor, it will pass. I’m concerned about its future in the House of Representatives because the Speaker of the House is pretty close to the railroad lobby, and the railroad lobby for 100 years has had too much power but we’re going to overcome it in the Senate.” 

A Norfolk Southern train runs through downtown East Palestine on Feb. 28, 2023. (Photo: Sophia Lucente)

The pros and cons of new technologies

New technology is continuing to change rail workers’ jobs. Constantine Tarawneh, the director of the University Transportation Center for Railway Safety at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, is developing on-board detectors that replace the need for wayside detectors. He said these predict accidents more reliably than humans inspecting wheel bearings. 

The development of on-board sensors and more new technology impacts the process of inspections and the need for rail workers. 

But Matt Weaver, a rail worker and  union representative from Railroad Workers United, said these technological advances change the process and quality of inspections.

“Inspectors are pushed to get trains out of the yard, pushed to make inspections quick,” he said. “It used to be two or three guys walking down each side of the train to inspect wheels, bearings, the knuckles, the brake valves, the air, you know all the inspection stuff, and it would take them two or three minutes per car.”

“Now they’re pushing for one guy to do a full car in less than a minute,” Weaver added. “That leaves a lot of room for missing something or being in a rush.”

A Norfolk Southern train runs through East Palestine on Dec. 18, 2023. (Photo: Sophia Lucente)

Two-person crews

After East Palestine, the Ohio Legislature passed a law that required all trains to have two-person crews. Before that law went into effect in July, the Association of American Railroads, a lobbying group for the industry, sued the state in an attempt to overturn it, saying federal laws overrule the new requirement. 

The Railway Safety Act of 2023 would change federal law to require two-person crews.

“We’ve successfully negotiated crew staffing issues with our unions for over four decades,” said Ian Jefferies, CEO of the Association of American Railroads. “All the while, we’ve seen safety continuously improve in the industry over that time period, and that it’s not appropriate to include a provision along these lines in real safety legislation.”

But Sen. Brown believes two-person crews make a difference in rail safety. 

“A big part of this is the railroads laid off a third of their workforce,” Brown said. “They compromised public safety and what happens – no surprise – is something like East Palestine.” 

The rail industry lost 40,000 jobs between 2018 and 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Tarawneh said the railroad industry became safer since the 1990s, when railroads deployed a new type of wheel bearing and started to require wayside detectors. Since then, however, the number of accidents has hit a plateau. 

“We reached a constant where the derailments have not improved. Basically, we got all we could. But we continue to see derailments, and the current system in place cannot mitigate more derailments,” he said. 

Jefferies described maintenance, prevention and response as the three steps in addressing railroad safety. Maintenance and prevention include inspecting rail cars and using hotbox detectors, which are sensors that measure whether wheel bearings are overheating and could be compromised, possibly leading to a derailment. They are also called wayside detectors and are along the tracks at regular intervals.

He said the third step — training first responders — is a “large focus” of the industry, to the point that they train more than 20,000 people per year to reduce the severity of derailments. 

“The more tools our responders have, the better equipped they are to address an incident should one occur in their community,” Jeffries said. “Of course, goal number one is to never have the incident in the first place.”

This story comes from the Collaborative NewsLab at Kent State University in partnership with Ideastream and is funded by The Center for Rural Strategies and Grist. Mariah Alanskas contributed reporting.

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