New freight crew rule tests rail industry’s clout, one year after East Palestine disaster

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New freight crew rule tests rail industry’s clout, one year after East Palestine disaster



A Union Pacific freight train travels in Round Rock, Texas, on April 21, 2023.

Brandon Bell | Getty Images

A year after the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, caused an environmental disaster, the Biden administration on Tuesday unveiled new rules intended to improve the safety of rail freight transportation.

A new rule passed by the Federal Railroad Administration requires freight trains in the United States to operate with at least two crew members in most cases.

Previously, the government had introduced a two-person crew requirement, but a loophole allowed railways to continue using a one-person crew without conducting a rigorous risk assessment or notifying regulators.

“Common sense tells us that large freight trains, some of which can be over three miles long, should have at least two crew members on board – and now there is a federal regulation to ensure the trains are safely staffed,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement Tuesday.

On average, there is at least one train derailment every day in the United States. There were seven deaths of rail employees in 2023, Buttigieg said. He said the new rule will make railways safer and prevent injuries and fatigue to workers.

Drone footage shows the derailment of a freight train in East Palestine, Ohio, USA, on February 6, 2023 in this screenshot taken from a handout video released by the NTSB.

NTSB Government | via Reuters

But the new rule falls short of the rail safety updates that the Biden administration and members of Congress originally envisioned in response to the disaster in East Palestine.

February 3, 2023 Norfolk South A train accident ignited hundreds of thousands of gallons of dangerous chemicals in a massive fire that burned for two days.

Major railroad safety updates require congressional funding, which has not yet been approved.

Buttigieg and labor leaders advocated for Congress to pass the Railroad Safety Act on Tuesday, giving the federal government more targeted authority and money to improve safety procedures for trains carrying dangerous goods. The bipartisan measure is blocked in the Senate.

“Congress has yet to act, even a year after the East Palestine derailment in Ohio,” said Vince Verna, vice president and national legislative representative for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “Lawmaking is your job. Please do your job, or get out of the way and let someone who is willing to step in and do the job.”

The delay in passing the railroad safety law also underscores the power of the rail industry’s Washington lobby group, the Association of American Railroads (AAR).

According to the nonprofit Open Secrets, the trade association spent $4.4 million lobbying Congress in 2023. The bill that generated more lobbying than any other was the Railroad Safety Act.

CNBC has reached out to us CSX, Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern, three of the nation’s largest railroads, for comment on the new rule. All three referred CNBC to the AAR.

“This rule is not supported by data and lacks a safety rationale. Look no further than the DOT’s own publication, which cites ‘common sense’ as the rationale for the rule,” said an AAR spokesperson.

The AAR said railroads have poured billions of dollars into improving safety and that the overall rate of train accidents has fallen 27% since 2000, while the number of Class I railroad worker victims has fallen 63% over the same period.

In addition, according to the ARA spokesman, all Class I railway lines, i.e. those with the highest operating income, currently run with two people.

The Transportation Department says the new regulation will close an existing gap in crewing requirements by establishing standards and an oversight process that will force railroads to obtain prior approval before allowing them to operate a train with a crew.

Buttigieg said that from now on, exceptions to the two-person crew will be the exception, not the rule.

“With this rule, we will only allow a special permit if an applicant railroad can demonstrate to us that its circumstances mean that a one-person crew is no less safe,” Buttigieg said.



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2024-04-02 20:33:42

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