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Pete Buttigieg announces efforts to strengthen rail industry safety, accountability

Posted at 7:26 AM, Feb 21, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-21 07:26:33-05

U.S. Sec. of Transportation Pete Buttigieg laid out a plan Tuesday calling for additional safety measures on America’s rail lines and to make railroad companies more accountable for their actions following derailments and other disasters. This all follows a train derailment in East Palestine that has affected the lives of an entire community.

Buttigieg called for a “three-fold effort” that includes immediate changes within the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“So first, we are demanding that Norfolk Southern and the entire freight rail and rail shipping industry take a number of immediate actions including committing to phasing in safer tank cars by 2025,” Buttigieg said.

According to the secretary, 2025 was the department’s original target date for safer cars until Congress pushed the date back to 2029.

Secondly, “rail companies should also immediately opt into the close call reporting system that protects whistleblowers and should follow the lead of CSX, which has taken steps just a few weeks ago toward working out a deal with their unions to finally provide paid sick leave, knowing that a healthy workforce is a safe workforce,” he said.

The secretary said the government will further augment its rail regulation and inspection within the USDOT, with additional regulation on high-hazard flammable trains and electronically controlled pneumatic brakes.The government will also use the bipartisan infrastructure law to fund projects that improve rail safety.

“We are calling on Congress to improve rail safety through specific legislation, including by increasing maximum fines the USDOT is allowed to issue against railroads that violate safety regulations,” he said.

Right now, the maximum fine the government can issue for an “egregious violation involving hazardous materials resulting in the loss of life” is around $225,000, according to the secretary.

That amount is a drop in the bucket for rail companies with profits in the billions of dollars each year, Buttigieg said.

“I’m concerned that some rail companies treat fines for safety violations as the cost of doing business, and then the real cost is borne by families and communities when that safety violation leads to tragedy,” he said.

According to the USDOT, Norfolk Southern’s operating income for last year was $4.8 billion.

Buttigieg said that the company made those profits on the backs of its workers: ”That profitability came by slashing their workforce to a barebones crew, including cutting safety and maintenance positions and by policies like refusing to provide paid sick leave, which means a more stressed and tired workforce,” Buttigieg said.

Furthermore, Norfolk Southern paid its shareholders nearly $18 billion in stock buybacks and dividends in the last five years–a number Buttigieg said is twice as much as the company invested in its railways and operations.

“So clearly, freight rail companies like Norfolk Southern have room to remain profitable while maintaining a higher standard of safety and taking better care of their workers. If they don't, that increases the risk that this will not be the last disaster, and regular people living near rail lines will continue to experience the pain that comes with these incidents. So this time has to be different,” he said.

Buttigieg said his office will be working to help the residents of East Palestine following the train derailment.

“I hope, with the newfound bipartisan interest and support we've been seeing in Congress to secure stronger legislation and overcome resistance by industry to water down this lifesaving work. The actions that we're pushing for cannot reverse the experience that the people of East Palestine have gone through, but they can help us achieve accountability for the people of Palestine and for greater safety and communities in communities across the country,” Buttigieg said.

CLICK HERE to read more of News 5’s coverage of the East Palestine train derailment.

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