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Spotlight on railway regulations and safety after East Palestine derailment

Questions raised about federal responsibilities
Train Derailment-Ohio
Posted at 6:40 PM, Feb 24, 2023

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Since the East Palestine derailment, many questions have come up about regulating the railways as well as criticisms about what has changed that has impacted safety and who is watching.

"We see you. We hear you. And we understand why there is anxiety,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said last week.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is just one of the federal agencies responding to the rail crash that led to a controlled burn of toxic chemicals in East Palestine and upended the lives of thousands along the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.

"Multiple federal agencies have been on the ground, as I just mentioned, some of them since Feb. 4, working hand in glove with the state and local officials who are leading the emergency response efforts. They're working to get to the bottom of what caused the derailment, monitoring air quality, collecting soil samples, testing surface and groundwater for any contaminants,” said White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

While some complain about the federal response, there are also questions about what the federal government’s responsibilities are before accidents happen.

"I think this is an unfortunate reminder about how, you know, how we're sort of on a knife's edge when you're talking about safety and railroads,” said AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department President Greg Regan.

In a letter to Norfolk Southern, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro said the company has resisted efforts for more federal oversight, citing what he said was "Norfolk Southern’s well-known opposition to modernized regulations."

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called on the industry to take what he said were immediate, commonsense steps to improve safety — among them, tougher tanks.

While federal law requires railroads to upgrade them by 2029, Buttigieg wants it faster — by 2025.

"In general, hazardous materials could be going through communities in stronger tank cars. Let's speed that up,” Buttigieg said.

The workforce is also an issue, with unions complaining that not only is the industry understaffed, but the technology used to inspect trains has resulted in a push to make human inspectors work faster.

"Before precision scheduled railroading, it would have been about two minutes for them to inspect a rail car. Now we're down to 30 to 45 seconds for both sides of a car. So, you know, you're really just trying to squeeze as much productivity out of these workers as they can," said Greg Regan.

"This was 100% preventable,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said Thursday.

Federal investigators are looking closely at a wheel bearing overheating on one of the cars shortly before the derailment.

“There are a number of causes for overheated roller bearings,” Homendy said.

But many questions have been raised about the train’s braking system.

NTSB Chair Homendy says the engineer was already in a dynamic braking to slow behind another train.

"He responded immediately. We have no evidence that the crew did anything wrong and during this deceleration, the wheel bearing failed,” Homendy said.

A proposed rule that would have required electronically controlled brakes on trains designated high-hazard flammable trains was dropped amid heavy lobbying under the Trump Administration.

Homendy earlier tweeted that the proposed rule on brakes wouldn’t have applied to the derailed train in East Palestine anyway.

"But I think we've got to ask, what other trains should that have applied to in the first place?” Buttigieg said.

The Associated Press reports while there were about 1,000 derailments in the United States last year, the numbers are on the decline.

"The railroad industry is investing a lot of time, effort and resources and both increasing their inspection technology, both to inspect the equipment and to inspect the track, and also better ways to analyze the results of the inspections,” University of Delaware Professor Allan Zarembski said.

Zarembski, a railroad safety expert, says incidents like what happened in East Palestine are very rare.

"Railroads are very safe. The accident rate for railroad derailments is of the order of three accidents per million train miles,” Zarembski said.

Transportation Secretary Buttigieg wants Congress to ease up on the agency so it can enforce certain safety and accountability rules.

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