Norfolk Southern Photo 117908053 © Alan Stoddard
Photo: Alan Stoddard,

The heat is piling up on Class I rail companies after yet another Norfolk Southern (NS) train derailed in Ohio, barely a month after the catastrophic derailment of a 150-car NS train in the state.

That incident saw 38 rail cars come off the rails, including 11 carrying hazardous materials; now legislators are up in arms over the rail industry’s safety record and are preparing legislation to tighten safety measures.

On Saturday, an NS train with 212 cars derailed near Springfield, with about 20 cars coming off the tracks. According to the railway, there were no injuries and no hazardous materials were involved, whereas, in the crash on 3 February, chemicals were spilled, which prompted the evacuation of 4,700 people. Some residents complained of headaches, bad odours and animal deaths.

Despite the minor impact of Saturday’s derailment, it caused outrage across the US Senate. Senator Sharrod Brown from Ohio pointed out that NS had suffered four derailments in the state in five months. He called this “unacceptable” and accused the railway of putting profit margins before safety, while Mike Turner, who represents the area of Saturday’s crash, called the derailments “outrageous”.

NS CEO Alan Shaw is due to testify before a Senate committee on Thursday and is bound to face a hostile audience.

In the aftermath of the derailment in East Palestine last month, US transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called on the railways to end their aggressive lobbying efforts and resistance to safety legislation.

Momentum for tougher rules on railway safety has seen a rare show of unity of members of both parties on Capitol Hill. A proposal before the Senate, endorsed by President Biden, aims for higher fines for safety violations, tougher rules for trains carrying hazardous materials, increased funding for hazmat training, accelerating replacement of older tank cars with more robust models and a minimum of two persons manning a train.

In addition, the Federal Railroad Administration announced targeted track inspections, with a focus on routes that frequently see hazardous materials shipped.

The Department of Transportation has urged freight railways to embrace the confidential close call reporting system, which gives employees an avenue to report safety concerns anonymously. This has been adopted by some passenger rail carriers, but none of the US freight rail firms until last Friday, when NS and CSX agreed to implement it.

Legislative pressure for a minimum crew size of two railway personnel is also building up in state legislatures. The latest move on that front came from New Mexico, which passed a bill to that effect for Class I and II railways operating in the state, which is now headed for the state Senate. Other states that have introduced legislation for minimum rail crew sizes include New York and Michigan.

Rising public concern over railway safety may also have coloured a verdict over a 2016 collision that had involved a train run by Union Pacific, which struck a car at a crossing in Houston. A lawyer for the stricken driver, who suffered amputations and severe brain injuries, demonstrated that the train’s brakes had  not been applied until it had come within 50 feet of the vehicle. The jury awarded the plaintiff damages of $557m.

The verdict, passed on Friday, came a week after a UP train derailed in Nebraska.

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