|Norfolk Southern locomotives in Conway, Pennsylvania
(Photo by Gene Puskar, The Associated Press)
Ambulances, fire trucks, people heading to emergency rooms and schoolchildren have all been stuck waiting for miles-long trains to pass. On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, dumping gallons of vinyl chloride in an unsuspecting small town, a different discussion on rail safety began, and some states are taking action, report Marc Levy and Josh Funk of The Associated Press.
“Spurred on by train derailments, some states with busy criss-crossing freight railroads are pursuing their own safety remedies rather than wait for federal action amid industry opposition and questions about whether they even have authority to make the changes,” Levy and Funk write. “Legislatures in at least a dozen states have advanced measures in recent weeks, including some in states such as Minnesota that have witnessed disruptive derailments.”
The rail industry has long resisted state regulation. “It contends it’s capable of making improvements and that its growing efficiency — including significantly longer trains and a much smaller workforce — doesn’t compromise safety,” AP reports. “States want limits on the length of trains that routinely stretch more than 2 miles long and on how much time trains can block road crossings . . . They are also pursuing rules to maintain the current standard of two-person crews, bolster the trackside detectors used to identify equipment problems and require more notice to local emergency responders about hazardous freight.”
State efforts come with legal uncertainties “over whether only the federal government can enforce such requirements. And Congress and federal regulators are considering similar measures,” Levy and Funk write. “Ohio moved quickly, with the Republican-controlled government enacting a new law within two months of the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine. . . . Rep. Rob Matzie (D), whose western Pennsylvania district is home to a major rail-freight handling hub, said he is satisfied with the state’s legal standing. . . . Matzie told colleagues during floor arguments, ‘It’s now time for this state to act. We can’t wait for federal regulations, which always seem to be in the works, but never quite get done. Or for federal laws that will never ever see the light of day.'”
“Two rail-union officials, Jason Doering and Matt Parker, who have both lobbied for legislation in Nevada for years, said it’s important for states to act because they’re not optimistic that Congress will pass meaningful reforms over the strong lobbying of the railroads in a polarized political climate,” Levy and Funk report. “Even though government data shows that derailments have declined in recent years, there were still 1,049 of them last year — roughly three a day. More than three-quarters of them happen at slow speeds in railyards and don’t cause significant damage. . .. . Joseph L. Schofer, a retired professor of civil and environmental engineering from Northwestern University, said some rules being proposed at the state and federal level — for instance, minimum crew size — have nothing to do with the East Palestine derailment because that train actually had three people in its crew. . . . He also said state-to-state rules will result in chaos.”