By Stephen Groves
Norfolk Southern’s CEO is offering support for some parts of a bipartisan Senate bill to put tougher safety regulations on railroads after last month’s fiery hazardous materials train derailment on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.
CEO Alan Shaw is under pressure from senators and federal safety regulators to step up his commitment to safety regulations as he appears before the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday. Under aggressive questioning from senators earlier this month in a separate hearing, he committed to voluntary safety upgrades and earnestly apologized for the derailment that upended life in East Palestine, Ohio. But Shaw had stopped short of endorsing proposed safety regulations under the Railway Safety Act of 2023.
This time, Shaw says in prepared remarks released Tuesday that Norfolk Southern will “support legislative efforts to enhance the safety of the freight rail industry.” But he does not address several key provisions of the Railway Safety Act, including increased fines for safety violations and designating trains that carry flammable liquids as highly hazardous.
Shaw supports provisions in the act for railroads to fund training for emergency crews, a review of regulations for rail care inspections every three years and accelerating the phaseout of older tank car models.
Shaw also says there are “areas in which we believe Congress could go further with safety legislation,” including stricter standards for tank car design and research into technology that would detect problems with rail cars.
No one was immediately injured in the Feb. 3 derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, but state and local officials decided to release and burn toxic vinyl chloride from five tanker cars, prompting the evacuation of half of the roughly 5,000 residents. Scenes of billowing smoke above the village, alongside reports from residents that they still suffer from illnesses, have turned high-level attention to railroad safety and how dangerous materials are transported.
The Senate Commerce Committee will also hear from the National Transportation Safety Board chair Jennifer Homendy. The NTSB – as well as the Federal Railroad Administration – are investigating the East Palestine derailment and Norfolk Southern’s safety practices.
In prepared remarks, Homendy says that “rail remains one of the safest means of transportation,” but also points to several safety shortcomings in current regulations, including that local emergency responders are not regularly told what hazardous materials are carried on trains if they don’t qualify as a high-hazard flammable train.
The train that derailed in East Palestine was not classified as highly hazardous because it fell under the threshold for the number of cars carrying a combustible liquid, such as gasoline, ethanol or acetone.
Homendy will push for a broader definition of high-hazard flammable trains, saying it “should include a broad range of hazardous materials” and “that even one railcar of any hazardous material justifies notifying emergency responders.”
Senators will also hear from an organization representing railroads, an East Palestine resident and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, as well as the two Ohio senators pushing the Railway Safety Act – Republican JD Vance and Democrat Sherrod Brown.
In the House, Republican Reps. Bill Johnson, whose district includes East Palestine, and Emilia Strong Sykes, an Ohio Democrat, have introduced a separate version of a railroad safety bill.
Both senators, as well as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, have been outspoken critics of Norfolk Southern. Vance, who holds a seat on the Senate Commerce Committee, circulated a memo to his fellow Republicans on the panel this week to push them to focus the hearing on the new safety regulations, including questioning Shaw on whether he supports increased fines for safety violations.
In the memo, Vance suggests that Shaw be asked whether the penalties should be stepped up “when a railroad company poisons an entire community.”
Vance also met with Shaw on Tuesday ahead of the hearing and told The Associated Press it was a “productive conversation.” But he added that he wanted to see the company endorse the increased fines, enhanced hazardous material reporting requirements and a mandate that detectors be installed every 10 miles (16 kilometres) to monitor for overheated bearings like the ones that caused the East Palestine derailment.
“It’s important if these guys really want to show commitment to rail safety, to endorse the legislation,” Vance said. “You don’t have to endorse every single piece of it, but to endorse the broad thrust of what we’re trying to do is important.”
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