Six months after a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed and burned in East Palestine, Ohio, railroad workers on Thursday urged Congress to pass comprehensive safety legislation to stop their employers from “choosing Wall Street over Main Street.”
“On this somber occasion, rail labor unions once again renew our calls for safety reforms,” the Transportation Trades Department (TTD) of the AFL-CIO, which represents 37 unions, said in a statement. “For years, workers have sounded the alarm about deadly safety conditions in the freight rail industry. The industry’s safety failures contribute to more than 1,000 freight train derailments a year.”
“There have been more than 60 high-profile derailments since East Palestine, including multiple [incidents] in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Montana,” the labor group continued. “Through it all, freight rail companies have maintained their fundamental disregard for public safety. Safety is just a buzzword to the railroads.”
Since the East Palestine disaster, rail companies have lobbied to evade or weaken safety provisions, such as the two-person crew minimum staffing standard in legislation pending before Congress. They have also sought to gut proposed safety requirements for rail inspections, defect detectors, and more. While fending off proposed safety measures, railroads have also repeatedly sought waivers from existing federal safety rules.
Shortly after the February 3 East Palestine derailment, chemical spill, and burnoff—which released toxins into the air and forced the evacuation of area residents—rail workers blamed what one member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen-Teamsters union called “greedy profiteers who externalize risks and reap profits at our expense.”
In the wake of recent rail accidents, workers, politicians, and safety advocates pointed to the railroad industry’s profit-maximizing scheduling system that forces fewer workers to manage longer trains in less time. Unions and progressive lawmakers contend that this makes the nation’s rail system more dangerous and contributes to derailments.
Some critics also noted that rail industry operatives spent more than a half billion dollars lobbying against improved railroad safety rules at the federal and state levels over the past two decades, while others drew attention to the billions of dollars in stock buybacks and dividends issued by railroad companies—money advocates say would be better spent on ensuring better staffing and safety levels.
On Thursday, The Leverreported that Occidental Petroleum, the company that manufactured the toxic chemicals released during the East Palestine disaster, gave $2 million to the leading Senate Republican super PAC as “rail safety legislation stalled in Congress.”
In March, U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), John Fetterman (D-Pa.), and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) introduced the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023, legislation that would impose limits on freight train lengths—which in some cases currently exceed three miles.
While welcomed by some safety advocates, critics said the bill has “loopholes big enough to operate a 7,000-foot train through.”
The Railway Safety Act was introduced a day after Democratic U.S. Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Chris Deluzio (D-Pa.) put forth a billthat would require the U.S. Department of Transportation to impose stricter regulations on trains carrying hazardous materials.
Later in March, Sens. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) introduced the Railway Accountability Act, which would direct the Federal Railroad Administration to study wheel-related accidents and mechanical defects.
The legislation would also implement new brake safety measures, improve switchyard safety protocols, ensure rail companies provide adequate safety equipment to their workers, and compel large freight operators to report close calls and dangerous events.
Advocates lamented that none of the bills have passed in the six months since East Palestine.
“Congress must pass a comprehensive rail safety bill that addresses the issues rooted in the industry’s current operating practices,” TTD said. “Absent these federal actions, rail corporations will keep choosing Wall Street over Main Street and rail safety will further deteriorate.”
“Above all, rail corporations must grapple with the moral bankruptcy of their current safety operations and come to their senses,” TTD added. “If the moral calculation is not persuasive, perhaps the financial calculation will be.”