Turning up the heat on the rail industry

Posted 3/28/23

DELAWARE RIVER VALLEY & BEYOND — In the wake of the February 3 train derailment in OH, elected officials both close to home and far from our region have turned up the heat on the railroad …

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Turning up the heat on the rail industry


DELAWARE RIVER VALLEY & BEYOND — In the wake of the February 3 train derailment in OH, elected officials both close to home and far from our region have turned up the heat on the railroad industry, calling for improved safety measures. By extension they are also giving regulatory agencies additional power to enforce current and future safety requirements, specifically for the transportation of hazardous substances by rail.

The Bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023 was introduced on March 1 with the aim of increasing railway safety while ensuring that communities get the assistance they require to deal with the spillage of toxic materials due to derailments.

The act, co-sponsored by U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and J.D. Vance, a Republican, along with four others, effectively highlighted several known deficiencies in safety practices in the freight industry and the transportation of hazardous materials by rail. 

Those highlights include “enhancing safety procedures for all trains carrying hazardous materials; preventing wheel-bearing failures; requiring two-person crews; making rail carriers pay for their wrongdoings; supporting communities impacted by rail disasters; and investing in the next generation of safety improvements.”

Troubles on the tracks 

According to an article published by ProPublica, Norfolk Southern Railroad policy allows officials to order train crews to ignore safety alerts from “train track sensors designed to flag potential mechanical problems” such as overheated wheel bearings, which were reportedly the cause of the February 3 derailment in Ohio, in which 38 rail cars derailed, 20 of which contained hazardous materials in the consist, and 11 of which were derailed.

In a recent conversation with Melanie Boyer, spokesperson from New York, Susquehanna & Western Railway (NYSW) - Central New York Railroad (CNY)—the operators of record for the trains operating on the 123 miles of the Upper Delaware River corridor—track-side sensors are in place and are routinely inspected.

Elected officials weigh in on railway safety 

In a March 1 press release, New York 18th District Congressman Pat Ryan, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, called for the immediate enactment of several rail safety measures: increasing the maximum fines that the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) can issue to rail companies for violating safety regulations; following through on the new bipartisan support to expand and strengthen rules governing high-hazardous shipments, including high-hazard flammable trains; following through on new bipartisan support to modernize braking regulations and increase the use of electronically controlled pneumatic brakes; speeding up the phase-in of DOT-117 tank cars to carry hazardous materials; and increasing funding to expand hazardous materials training for first responders.

The DOT-117 has thicker walls and improved valves to prevent spills during a derailment. In a study conducted over several years, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board noted that due to their construction, the older DOT-111 tank cars had a high incidence of failure during accidents. 

In addition, Ryan urged the entire freight rail industry to protect workers who spot safety issues from reprisal by joining the Federal Railroad Administration’s Confidential Close Call Reporting Program; deploy new inspection technology without seeking permission to abandon human inspections; require the owners of tank cars to speed up the phase-in of safer cars in advance of the mandated 2029 deadline; and “provide advance notification to state emergency response teams when they are transporting hazardous-gas tank cars through their states instead of expecting first responders to look up this information after an accident occurs.”

In a recent call for the railroad industry to improve its overall safety record, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said, “We can’t let safety for upstate New York go off the rails. It is time to fast track common-sense rail-safety reform.”

In a recent letter to the major rail carriers, Schumer wrote, “Local officials and emergency responders have a right to know and to be prepared for any and all disasters that may result from your transport of hazardous cargo. These communities are at the mercy of your railroad’s actions, as well as any disregard for safety measures... I call on you to provide responses [to a list of questions] within 30 days.” 

On March 23, the USDOT Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a safety advisory that reemphasized its concerns with the “survivability of DOT-111 tank cars and encourage[d] tank car owners and shippers of flammable liquids to voluntarily upgrade their tank car fleets to the DOT-117 specification tank car, the newest and safest available tank car design authorized for flammable liquid service.”

The advisory also urged rail carriers to “consider the risks inherent in the continued use of DOT-111 tank cars in flammable liquid service, and to take actions that could reduce the risks of hazardous material transportation by rail.”

Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther (NY-100) said she plans to contact elected federal officials, with the goal of setting up a meeting to address rail safety issues brought to her attention by local concerned citizens. Overall, rail industry matters are a federal subject; she recommended contacting Schumer’s Peekskill, NY office at 914/734-1532.

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