Reported by Brett Wilkins for Common Dreams.
Democratic U.S. Sens. Bob Casey and John Fetterman of Pennsylvania on Friday urged the CEO of Norfolk Southern to follow through on a promise to take part in a “near-miss” reporting system more than six months after one of the company’s freight trains carrying hazardous materials derailed and burned in East Palestine, Ohio.
In a letter to Norfolk Southern president and CEO Alan Shaw, Casey and Fetterman praised the company for its “important first step toward taking accountability by agreeing to participate in the Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS).”
“After the East Palestine derailment, Norfolk Southern announced on March 2 that it would join the C3RS report system,” the senators wrote. “However, since your initial announcement, you have not followed through on this pledge.”
The senators continued:
C3RS is 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. C3RS acts as one unified database for reporting and, with NASA as an independent third-party administrator, ensures confidentiality and protects against retribution against employees who make reports. 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. In turn, addressing the near-misses reported through C3RS makes rail safer by preventing more serious catastrophes.
Casey and Fetterman noted that a recent Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Safety Culture Assessment of Norfolk Southern “paid particular attention to the railroad’s engagement with employees and management on safety issues” and found that company employees and management “do not always work to foster mutual trust.” One in three labor leaders interviewed by FRA and a similar ratio of workers surveyed said they were reluctant “to stop an unsafe action due to a fear of retaliation or disciplinary action.”
“FRA reported that members of labor and Norfolk Southern leadership indicated that some employees may be hesitant to use their company’s internal near-miss reporting system ‘out of concern that the report could be traced back to the employee,'” the letter notes. “Allowing the railroads to punish employees who report safety concerns would not only harm rail workers who are simply doing the right thing, but also undermine the program and make rail less safe.”
The senators asked Shaw four questions:
- Does Norfolk Southern still intend to join C3RS?
- Will Norfolk Southern commit to formally joining C3RS before the end of this year?
- Since the FRA Safety Culture Assessment was published, what actions has Norfolk Southern taken to assess internal safety culture, particularly around mutual trust between employees and leadership?
- Does Norfolk Southern have data or other evidence indicating that employees at their railroads are more likely than those at participating railroads to utilize the C3RS program to avoid discipline?
According to a New York Times article published last week, freight rail companies have been working with the FRA on an agreement to the terms of their participation in the C3RS program. Vincent G. Verna, a vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, told the paper that rail companies “do not want to relinquish their ability to discipline their employees who report something if they think there’s a rule that has been violated.”
Norfolk Southern told the USA Today Network on Friday that it is “making good progress toward operationalizing our membership” in C3RS.
“We met with FRA representatives in May to receive an initial briefing on the program, and with labor representatives this month to discuss the multiparty memorandum of understanding and the subsequent implementation of a pilot program,” the company added.Earlier this month, railroad workers marked the six-month anniversary of the East Palestine disaster by calling on Congress to pass comprehensive safety legislation to stop rail companies from “choosing Wall Street over Main Street.”
“For years, workers have sounded the alarm about deadly safety conditions in the freight rail industry,” the Transportation Trades Department (TTD) of the AFL-CIO, which represents 37 unions, said. “The industry’s safety failures contribute to more than 1,000 freight train derailments a year.”
Casey and Fetterman previously wrote Shaw demanding answers about Norfolk Southern’s response and cleanup plans in the wake of the February 3 East Palestine derailment. The senators have also pressed the Environmental Protection Agency to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for releasing hazardous materials into the air and water.
The Pennsylvania senators also joined Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in introducing the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023, legislation that would impose limits on freight train lengths—which in some cases currently exceed three miles.
Amid the national focus on rail safety following the East Palestine disaster, 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.
It’s not just railroad companies. Occidental Petroleum, which manufactured the toxic chemicals released and burned after the East Palestine derailment, gave $2 million to the leading Senate Republican super PAC as proposed rail safety legislation stalled in Congress.
Read more here.