Reported by Mark Gruenberg for People’s World.
Six months after the Norfolk Southern freight derailment released a mushroom cloud of fumes over the small town of East Palestine, Ohio, the U.S. Senate is within one Republican vote of passing a bipartisan and comprehensive freight rail re-regulation bill, AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Greg Regan says.
The Senate’s 48 Democrats, three independents, and eight of the 49 Republicans apparently favor re-regulation. But the freight rail safety bill is not a money bill, so it needs 60 votes to pass—and now has 59. That means it needs another Senate Republican, and workers should lobby lawmakers for that last vote.
The U.S. Capitol switchboard is (202) 224-3121. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Pennsylvania’s two Democratic senators have taken the lead on maneuvering the measure through the Senate, including surmounting obstacles the nation’s freight railroads and their lobby threw up to sidetrack it. And the bipartisanship on the measure is meaningful, he said in an interview with People’s World. The lead Republican sponsor, Ohio Republican J.D. Vance, “is working really hard” on the bill to get that key 60th vote and thus halt any potential filibuster when the legislation hits the floor, according to Regan.
Vance, bill crafter Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Pennsylvania’s two Democratic senators have taken the lead on maneuvering the measure through the Senate, including surmounting obstacles the nation’s freight railroads and their lobby threw up to sidetrack it.
The Senate’s 48 Democrats, three independents, and eight of the 49 Republicans apparently favor re-regulation. But the freight rail safety bill is not a money bill, so it needs 60 votes to pass—and now has 59. That means it needs another Senate Republican, and workers should lobby lawmakers for that last vote. The U.S. Capitol switchboard is (202) 224-3121.
The railroads, including Norfolk Southern, and their lobby, insist freight railroading is safe and re-regulation is unnecessary. East Palestine’s evidence says otherwise: 3,500 dead fish from toxic chemicals in its small river, hundreds of residents driven from their homes for days, bottled water for drinking, clouded air, and 39 sickened cleanup workers, all Teamsters Rail Conference unionists.
Not to mention devalued homes, and the $1 billion Norfolk Southern has spent on cleanup, repairs, and care for East Palestine, its surrounding area, and, blocks away, Pennsylvania.
“On this somber occasion, rail labor unions once again renew our calls for safety reforms,” Regan said in a prepared statement for the six-month anniversary of the derailment, which saw dozens of freight cars—several of them loaded with toxic chemicals—jump the tracks after the axle of one overheated and broke. Venting the chemicals to reduce pressure prevented a big blast, but also sent the toxins into the air and groundwater.
“For years, workers have sounded the alarm about deadly safety conditions in the freight rail industry. The industry’s safety failures contribute to more than 1,000 freight train derailments a year.
“There have been more than 60 high-profile derailments since East Palestine, including multiple [derailments] in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Montana. Through it all, freight rail companies have maintained their fundamental disregard for public safety. Safety is just a buzzword to the railroads.”
The Brown-Vance bill would mandate a wide range of safety measures for freight railroads, including two-person crews, shorter distances between trackside electric monitoring devices to alert rail crews of problems in advance, mandatory advance notice to counties, cities, and states of “toxic trains” and their contents, and high fines for carriers which violate the tougher safety standards.
But in one indication of the rail carriers’ clout on Capitol Hill, they got senators to eliminate one safety measure, limiting train length. The train that derailed was more than a mile and a half long.
“But the biggest shame of these six months,” Regan said, “is that we haven’t even had a hearing in the House.” Though “six months is not an eternity” in congressional terms, the lack of action “is a growing indictment of the House leadership,” he added.
“We’re trying to be persuasive” in that Republican-run chamber, “and part of it is the Senate is further along” in writing the safety bill and plans to take it up after lawmakers return to work. Regan believes a Senate OK will force House leaders, specifically Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to act. Regan foresees himself lobbying to ensure reps don’t weaken it.
Added pressure on lawmakers comes from the Biden administration. Regan and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg discussed rail safety measures in a one-on-one session on August 2, though Regan declined to say what’s on the secretary’s coming agenda.
Meanwhile, Martin Oberman, chair of the federal Surface Transportation Board, pushes railroads on safety, Regan said. That’s a new area for the small agency. Historically, it dealt with rail rates. That hasn’t stopped Oberman.
The former Chicago alderman is very familiar with freight railroads and their safety issues. His ward contains miles of freight and commuter rail track. His city, the nation’s longtime rail hub, includes thousands of rail freight miles.
“He’s still laser-focused on getting the best (safety) performance out of the railroads that he can,” Regan says of Oberman. “He’s not shy about telling the railroads ‘You’re not doing enough.’” The worry: That an East Palestine-like derailment could occur in a major metro area.
Still, there’s no substitute for Congress enacting a law to force the freight railroads to put safety over profits, Regan said in his prepared statement—a theme he’s pushed before.
“Congress must pass a comprehensive rail safety bill that addresses the issues rooted in the industry’s current operating practices. Absent these federal actions, rail corporations will keep choosing Wall Street over Main Street and rail safety will further deteriorate.
“Above all, rail corporations must grapple with the moral bankruptcy of their current safety operations and come to their senses. If the moral calculation is not persuasive, perhaps the financial calculation will be.”
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