Reported by Benjamin Kail for Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
U.S. Sens. Bob Casey and John Fetterman are pressing Norfolk Southern to join a federal rail safety program that the company said it would join more than four months ago, after one of its freight trains derailed in East Palestine, Ohio in February.
The Federal Railroad Administration’s Confidential Close Call Reporting System allows employees to report near-misses or close calls on railroads and protects them from discipline for reporting such incidents.
Norfolk Southern said in March that it was engaged in a working group on the program and planned to join, noting it would build on its own close-call reporting system and mark “another step we are taking to further our commitment to safety,” according to CEO Alan Shaw.
But the senators, both Pennsylvania Democrats, say the Atlanta-based company hasn’t met its pledge. In a letter to Mr. Shaw, they called the FRA’s close call reporting system “a promising program with real potential to improve rail safety, protect employees, and reduce incidents if adopted by a larger swath of the rail industry.”
Norfolk Southern locomotives are moved in Norfolk Southern’s Conway Terminal in Conway, Beaver County, June 17, 2023. Lawyers and unions who represent rail workers say there is a clear pattern across the industry of railroads retaliating against workers who report safety violations or injuries on the job.
The lawmakers said rail companies are resistant due to the provision that protects employees from retribution for filing reports on near-misses.
“Ensuring that employees are not disciplined for reporting near-misses is key to making the program effective, as employees are more likely to report these incidents when they have a guarantee of anonymity and safety from retribution,” the senators wrote. “We believe that fully participating in [the program] would be a positive step for Norfolk Southern in committing itself to a culture of safety.”
Norfolk Southern says it’s on track to join the program, and notes that no Class I carrier — the largest class of freight rail companies — has joined yet.
“We are making good progress toward operationalizing our membership in the Confidential Close Call Reporting System,” Norfolk Southern spokesman Connor Spielmaker told the Post-Gazette on Monday. “We met with FRA representatives in May to receive an initial briefing on the program, and with labor representatives this month to discuss the multi-party memorandum of understanding and the subsequent implementation of a pilot program at Norfolk Southern.”
That memorandum of understanding came after the American Association of Railroads requested waivers to a handful of regulations that would require railroads to discipline or revoke the certification of engineers or conductors who violate safety rules and report incidents to the program, trains.com reported earlier this month.
All Class I railroads have longstanding confidential reporting programs to help prevent accidents. The AAR recently told The New York Times that freight companies’ own safety reporting programs are currently more effective than the Federal Railroad Administration’s.
Railroads are concerned about applying the FRA program’s protections to employees who report events that their companies are already aware of. The AAR argues an employee could potentially dodge consequences of known violations if they self-report using the FRA’s system. But AAR says protecting employees reporting unknown events could lead to solid information and changes that would improve safety.
Debbie Steeb, a 3rd generation East Palestine resident, sorts though personal items as she prepares to move out of her family home on Saturday, April 1, 2023, in East Palestine, Ohio.
A spokesperson for the association told the Post-Gazette Monday that the railroads in recent months have recommended several improvements to the program. The FRA’s Railroad Safety Advisory Committee is poised to discuss the matter next Monday and Tuesday.
“Progress has been made to date and railroads remain confident that this collaborative process will ultimately improve the [confidential close call reporting] program,” the spokesperson said.
The FRA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The senators’ letter comes after an FRA report on the derailment recommended Norfolk Southern join its close call reporting system.
Earlier this month, the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO wrote to all six Class I rail companies to urge them to join the program.
“Rail workers are the eyes and ears of the system,” wrote Greg Regan, the union division’s president. “Yet worker perspectives about current and prospective safety incidents are not fully leveraged at the moment.
“We believe the Confidential Close Call Reporting System can help leverage these vital worker perspectives and improve safety. We appreciate the increased collaboration between labor and industry in recent months and hope we can continue onward in the spirit of mutually beneficial cooperation to deliver on rail safety for America.”
The East Palestine derailment sent hazardous materials into the air and a nearby ditch that drains into the Ohio River. Norfolk Southern’s remediation efforts to rid the area of toxic waste — ordered by the Environmental Protection Agency in February — have steadily progressed, with the company replacing track in June and saying all contaminated soil should be removed by this month.
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