Norfolk Southern CEO backs part of new rail safety bills

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw testifies at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing to protect public health and the environment following the Norfolk Southern train derailment and chemical release in East Palestine, Ohio, in Washington, DC, USA. March 9, 2023

Aaron Schwartz | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

Norfolk South CEO Alan Shaw told senators on Wednesday that his railroad company is supporting parts of two bipartisan railroad safety bills that passed after last month’s derailment of a train carrying toxic materials in Ohio.

Speaking before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Shaw said the Railroad Safety Act and the Railroad Act include “measures with the potential for significant improvement, such as funding for additional training, improved advance notices, accelerated phase-out from old cisterns and much more”.

Shaw did not fully support the Railroad Safety Act, which includes provisions requiring two-man crews on all railroad locomotives. “We are not aware of any data linking crew size to safety,” Shaw said on Wednesday.

“If the railroads had their own track — down to a one-man crew — and they reduced the position of the conductor to ground, that is, a person in a pickup truck going to the site, this would put the engineers at risk,” said Clyde Whitaker. , a representative of the SMART Transportation Division, in response. “It also compromises response time and problem scoring.”

The legislation was introduced by Senators J.D. Vance, D-Ohio, and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, weeks after the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio on February 3, which released toxic chemicals into the surrounding area.

In prepared comments, Shaw said he agreed “in principle” with some parts of the legislation, such as “setting performance standards, service standards, and thresholds for safety sensors.”

“We are encouraging even more stringent tank design standards,” Shaw said in a prepared speech. “There are significant opportunities for advanced technology to improve safety in rail transport, and we encourage Congress to consider conducting more research into technology for detecting defects on board rail cars.”

Brown, who spoke at the hearing with Vance, suggested that the problems with Norfolk Southern were broader, citing 579 violations in one last fiscal year, with the company paying an average fine of $3,300.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said at a hearing that he agrees with “the changes to the law” the bill proposes, as well as the RAILWAY Act proposed last week by Rep. Bill Johnson, D-Ohio, and Emilia Strong Sykes, D. – Ohio. DeWine, a Republican, said lawmakers added his request to include a provision requiring rail carriers to provide advance notice and information to government emergency response services about the goods they are transporting.

Ohio sued Norfolk Southern last week seeking damages, civil penalties and “a declarative decision that Norfolk Southern is liable,” Attorney General Dave Yost said.

Making improvements

Shaw, who testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee two weeks ago, said in a prepared speech that the company will expand its network of hot bearing detectors, deploy more acoustic bearing detectors, speed up its inspection program and improve detector handling practices. Norfolk Southern said the detectors are working as designed in East Palestine but are adding 200 additional hot box detectors.

National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy said the agency supports a faster phase-out of the old tank car standard, as well as improved information sharing between emergency services and railroads.

“Even one carload of any hazardous material warrants a notification to emergency services, not 20 or more than 35 loaded tanks that could hold 1 million gallons of hazardous material,” Homendy wrote in prepared comments.

The NTSB on Monday released three preliminary reports of recent incidents, including the March 9 Alabama train derailment, the March 7 dump truck collision that killed a train attendant, and the March 4 train derailment in Springfield, Ohio.

Homendy proposed to broaden the definition of high hazard flammable trains, as well as provide real-time information for rescuers and residents.

In his talk, Shaw addressed the controversial practice of railroad precision scheduling, which had been criticized as a method of cutting costs and ensuring low operating rates. Shaw said the company has taken a “more balanced approach to service, performance and growth” by “aggressively” hiring railroad workers.

“The goal of inspections is no longer to identify defects, but rather to minimize the time it takes to complete them or eliminate them completely,” Whitaker said. “Combine that with the fact that the railroads are on a course to increase these trains to astronomical lengths and you get a predictable result, and that result is East Palestine.”

From 2017 to 2021, railroads cut their workforce by 22% and reduced network investment by 24%, though accidents increased by 14% over the period, according to Senator Mary Cantwell, Washington, who chairs the committee. who held the hearing on Wednesday.

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