WASHINGTON – Today, 13 rail union leaders gathered for a virtual media briefing to warn of ongoing safety threats within the freight rail industry ahead of the one-year anniversary of the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on the evening of February 3rd. Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department (TTD) of the AFL-CIO, moderated the briefing and U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg opened the briefing with calls for rail safety reforms. A recording is available here.
On behalf of all U.S. rail unions and workers, TTD President Regan released the following statement commemorating the anniversary of Norfolk Southern Railway’s hazardous train derailment in East Palestine:
“On this somber anniversary, rail labor leaders once again renew our calls for safety reforms. 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 1,500 train accidents since East Palestine, including a BNSF train that spilled fuel on tribal land in Washington State; a BNSF train that caused a chemical spill in Wisconsin; a Union Pacific train that caused a grassfire in Texas; a CSX train carrying dry cleaning chemicals that prompted evacuations in Pennsylvania; and a CSX train that sparked a chemical fire in Kentucky and prompted evacuations the day before Thanksgiving. A few months ago, an explosion at the world’s largest railyard prompted evacuations in Nebraska because of toxic smoke. Just last week, a train carrying ethanol derailed in Darke County, Ohio. Through it all, freight rail companies have maintained their fundamental disregard for public safety. Safety is just a buzzword to the railroads.
“Since the East Palestine disaster, rail companies have lobbied to evade or weaken safety provisions, such as the two-person crew minimum staffing standard in the rail safety bill that is stalled in Congress. We anticipate that a federal safety rule requiring two-person crews will be released next month and urge everyone to closely observe the industry’s response to this rule.
“Last March, the Association of American Railroads publicly promised that all Class I freight railroads would join a federal safety reporting program that enables workers to confidentially report safety close calls without fear of discipline. Just this week, Norfolk Southern announced a pilot version of the program with two rail unions, BLET and SMART-TD. While we are pleased by this progress, we are disheartened that it took nearly a year for one railroad to follow through on this promise. We urge all Class I railroads to swiftly keep their promise to join the program and to ensure that all rail workers are able to participate.
“Railroads have also sought to gut proposed safety requirements for rail inspections, defect detectors, and more. While fending off proposed safety measures, railroads have also repeatedly sought waivers from existing federal safety rules. Just last month, the freight rail industry requested a two-week deferral from performing federally-required safety inspections and maintenance of rail cars and locomotives, citing routine winter weather as a reason to bypass inspection, service, and maintenance work that is critical to the safe operation of the railroads.
“Rail safety, staffing, and service levels are all still woefully inadequate. In December, Union Pacific Railroad laid off 1,300 track maintenance workers and in January, laid off an additional 35 mechanical department employees in California that are responsible for maintaining UP’s locomotives. Attendance policies remain unreasonable and fatigue is still driving workers out of the field while failing to attract new workers to the industry. Above all, workers also don’t feel safe on the job. Last March, three workers were injured when a CSX train derailed in West Virginia. A rail worker sustained a shoulder injury in September when a CSX train derailed in Indiana. A BNSF train derailment in Wisconsin sent four rail workers to the hospital. Last year, CSX had three workplace fatalities.
“While we have welcomed incremental rail safety actions from the Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration during the last year, more must be done. 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.
“To the East Palestine community: we will not forget what happened to you and we will not stop fighting to prevent it from happening to another community. Solidarity forever.”
Note: this press statement has been updated to reflect that there have been more than 1,500 train accidents since the one in East Palestine. A previous version incorrectly stated there had been more than 1,500 train derailments since East Palestine.