Editor’s Note: Watch East Palestine, Ohio, residents pose questions to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and EPA Administrator Michael Regan. “A CNN Town Hall: Toxic Train Disaster, Ohio Residents Speak Out” airs tonight at 9 p.m. ET on CNN.
A fiery train wreck that released toxic materials in an Ohio town is raising new questions in the halls of the nation’s capital over the regulation of the rail industry and if stricter measures could have prevented the disaster.
News of the East Palestine, Ohio, derailment – and its potential harmful effects on the environment and health of local residents – has propelled both Democrats and Republicans in Congress to press the Biden administration on whether there’s enough oversight to keep rail workers and communities near railroads safe. And the supervising agency broadly responsible for regulating rail safety, the Department of Transportation, is calling on Congress to make it easier to institute safety reforms.
This rare, general bipartisan agreement about taking action in the wake of the derailment follows years of Republicans generally supporting deregulation of the rail industry, including with the broad rollback of transportation rules during the Trump administration.
Unions, current and former regulatory officials, and members of Congress from both parties have signaled some optimism about the possibility that the Ohio disaster may mark a rare opportunity for Washington to get something done to enhance the rail industry’s safety standards. But what’s unclear is whether there’s enough momentum for both parties in Congress to propel the issue forward into tangible actions. Nor is it clear whether the rail industry’s strong lobbying efforts will pare down any proposed measures or play a hand in eliminating them altogether.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in an interview with CNN on Tuesday that that he’s fed up with the rail industry’s pressure campaigns to diminish regulatory reforms.
“I’ve had it,” he said. “We have had situation after situation where even modest, reasonable reform gets just a full court press.”
“I do think if the railroads, like Norfolk Southern, are in a mode right now where they’re saying, ‘We’re going to do everything it takes and everything we can.’ Let’s give them a chance to show it,” Buttigieg later added. “But let’s be very clear, I’m not waiting for them to do this work. I’m just saying they have a chance to put their money where their mouth is.”
Experts point out several areas of opportunity to enhance rail safety and hold rail companies further accountable: updating trains’ braking system, shortening the lengths of freight trains, further separating cars with hazardous material, requiring more crew member be on board, and increasing penalties.
Many of these proposals, experts say, have been around for decades, and have oftentimes been diminished or entirely eliminated after rail lobbying efforts. Data compiled by the nonprofit OpenSecrets show that Norfolk Southern spent $1.8 million on federal lobbying last year.
Norfolk Southern posted record profits from railway operations of $4.8 billion in 2022, up from its previous record of $4.45 billion in 2021. The company did not respond to questions Wednesday on whether it expects to change its share repurchase plans in the wake of the derailment.
“Unfortunately, derailments like this are preventable and they become inevitable when there’s more risk in the system,” Sarah Feinberg, a former administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration during the Obama administration, told CNN. “The industry has fought tooth and nail against safety regulations, but I also think that’s typical of any industry.”
Lobbying influence from the rail industry is “a big problem and they have a stranglehold on Congress, especially in the Senate,” Greg Hynes, national legislative director for the SMART Transportation Division union, told CNN.
“It’s all about the bottom line and they adhere to the operating ratios that Wall Street is so hungry for, which includes lowering head counts – which includes fewer safety inspections, fewer brake tests, fewer people doing the job that they need to do,” he added.
Buttigieg recently sent a letter Sunday to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw demanding accountability and calling for greater safety regulations. And DOT subsequently announced on Tuesday that it would take a three-pronged approach to enhance rail safety – push companies to voluntarily adopt additional safety measures, call on Congress to do more and bolster administration efforts to regulate the industry.
Among other plans to advance existing efforts or deploy existing funding, DOT says it’s initiating focused safety inspections as well as pursuing additional federal rulemaking on high-hazard flammable trains and electronically controlled pneumatic brakes.
DOT also says it’s working to advance a proposed rule that would require a minimum of two crew members for most railroad operations. Leadership for Norfolk Southern met with Buttigieg and other DOT officials and expressed concerns about the proposed rule. Among other issues, Norfolk Southern argues it will lead to significant labor costs
Crucial to efforts to enhance rail safety, administration officials and rail experts say, is Congress’ ability to untie the executive branch’s hands.
DOT is asking Congress to increase the maximum fines that can be issued to rail companies for violating safety regulations. And similar to its regulatory efforts announced Tuesday, DOT is calling on Congress to expand the rules “governing high-hazardous shipments, including high-hazard flammable trains, pushing past industry opposition” and follow through “on new bipartisan support to modernize braking regulations and increase the use of electronically controlled pneumatic brakes.”
“The apparatus that exists was to allow safety regulators to write and finalize common sense safety regulations that will protect people – protect their homes, protect their water, protect their children, protect their health – it’s totally broken,” Feinberg said. “And the reason it’s totally broken is because the Congress and others – other administrations – will insert themselves into the process and take it over … from safety regulators and say, ‘I know better and I’m going to protect the industry from whatever you’re trying to force its hand on.’”
The American Association of Railroads, an industry group, has said that “until NTSB has completed their investigation, AAR will not comment on potential policy changes in relation to this event as the cause and any underlying factors have not yet been fully determined.” The NTSB is set to release a preliminary report on the derailment investigation Thursday morning.
Congressional committees are set to review the environmental and safety impacts of the East Palestine derailment. Although efforts to enhance regulatory oversight of the rail industry have generally broken along party lines, some Republicans and Democrats appear to be moving in the same direction.
Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, a Washington state Democrat, sent a letter last week to seven of the largest railroad company CEOs, inquiring about safety practices involved in rail transportation of hazardous materials. She’s also requested a joint staff-level briefing with the Environment and Public Works Committee, asking federal transportation and environmental agencies to appear, according to Politico.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican, scheduled a bipartisan briefing for members of the committee last week, and there may be further briefings for committee and all House members to help keep them informed of the status and relevant issues, Graves’ office told CNN.
Republican Sens. J.D. Vance of Ohio and Marco Rubio of Florida sent a letter to DOT requesting information about the administration’s regulatory oversight, questioning whether the three crew members on board the Norfolk Southern train that derailed were enough to staff the 149-car locomotive.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the leading Republican on the Senate Commerce committee, last week tweeted that he fully agreed with Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, who wrote, in part, “We need Congressional inquiry and direct action from [Buttigieg] to address this tragedy.”
Republican candidates for president Nikki Haley and former President Donald Trump have criticized President Joe Biden for not visiting the site of the derailment, arguing that his trip to Ukraine and Poland this week shows he’s more focused on a foreign crisis than what’s happening at home – an increasingly frequent critique of the president and his administration.
Trump – whose administration sidelined the pending rule to require freight trains to have at least two crew members – appeared in East Palestine on Wednesday alongside Vance.
Rubio and Buttigieg, meanwhile, are in a spat – with the secretary suggesting the senator was previously parroting lines from the rail industry and Rubio calling for Buttigieg’s resignation.
“Anybody who has seen fit to get on television and talk about this incident, talk about this issue, can do right by the people of East Palestine and everybody else who lives near a railroad,” Buttigieg told CNN. “Not just when it comes to this case, but when it comes to the future, by getting on the right side of this issue, and helping to raise – not lower – the bar of accountability for the railroad industry.”
Biden on Wednesday posted on Instagram about his phone call with his EPA Administrator Michael Regan and officials from Ohio and Pennsylvania to discuss the East Palestine situation. He also accused the Trump administration of limiting the ability to strengthen rail safety measures and said some of his current Republican critics were trying to dismantle the EPA.
“The Department of Transportation has made clear to rail companies that their pattern of resisting safety regulations has got to change,” the caption stated. “Congress should join us in implementing rail safety measures. But the Department of Transportation is limited in the rail safety measures they can implement. Why? For years, elected officials – including the last (administration) – have limited our ability to implement and strengthen rail safety measures.”
Following repeated calls for Buttigieg to visit the Ohio site, the secretary said earlier this week that he intended to visit East Palestine when the time was right. And then on Wednesday, DOT announced that he would visit on Thursday.
A DOT spokesperson said Buttigieg had planned to go when it was “appropriate and wouldn’t detract from the emergency response efforts. The Secretary is going now that the EPA has said it is moving out of the emergency response phase and transitioning to the long-term remediation phase.”