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

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

Brandon Bell | Getty Images

A year after a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, caused an environmental disaster, the Biden administration on Tuesday unveiled new regulations intended to strengthen freight rail safety.

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

The government had previously imposed a two-person crew requirement, but a loophole allowed railways to continue operating one-person crews without conducting a rigorous risk assessment or notifying regulators.

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

The United States experiences at least one train derailment every day on average. In 2023, there have been seven railroad employee deaths, Buttigieg said. He said the new rule will make railroads safer and prevent worker injuries and fatigue.

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

NTSB Government | via Reuters

Still, the new rule falls short of the type of rail safety update that the Biden administration and members of Congress initially envisioned as a response to the East Palestine disaster.

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

Any major rail safety updates will require funding from Congress that has not yet been approved.

Buttigieg and union leaders advocated for Congress to pass the Rail Safety Act on Tuesday and give the federal government more targeted authority and funds to improve safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials. The bipartisan measure is stalled in the Senate.

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

Blocking the rail safety law also highlights the power of the freight rail industry’s lobbying power in Washington, the Association of American Railroads (AAR).

In 2023, the trade association spent $4.4 million lobbying Congress, according to data from the nonprofit Open Secrets. The bill that has received the most lobbying is the Rail Safety Act.

CNBC contacted CSX, Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern, three of the nation’s largest railroads, for their comments on the new regulations. All three referred CNBC to the AAR.

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

The AAR said railroads have dedicated billions of dollars to improve safety and the overall rate of rail accidents has declined 27 percent since 2000, while the number of casualties among Class I railroad employees fell 63% during the same period.

Additionally, all Class I railroads, those with the highest operating revenues, currently operate with two people, according to the ARA spokesperson.

The Department of Transportation says the new regulations will fill an existing gap in crewing requirements by establishing standards and an oversight process that will require railroads to obtain prior approval before they can operate a train with just one crew.

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

“With this rule, we will allow special approval if and only if an applicant railroad can demonstrate to us that its circumstances mean a one-person crew will not be less safe,” Buttigieg said.


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