Weeks after the Norfolk Southern derailment in Springfield, Ohio’s senators and others are working to pass a bill that intends to up safety protocols for railway companies.
A regional expert on railways, however, is uncertain the bill will make the nation’s railroads safer.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) stopped in Springfield on Friday to see cleanup progress after the March 4 Norfolk Southern train derailment and hear from a local business owner whose building faces the derailment site.
Ability Builders is located on South Charleston Pike. On Friday afternoon, railcars were sitting off the tracks, and Ability Builders owner Lane Martin could see them just beyond his fence.
Martin’s business serves people with developmental disabilities in Clark and Montgomery counties. The business was not open on March 4, and Martin counts that as a blessing.
“My mind immediately went to East Palestine, and the type of damage and horrific toll that has on the environment… that could be happening right here in our backyard. It did not,” Martin said. “I think we all just got very, very lucky that it did not happen.”
Brown, Ohio Sen. JD Vance (R) and others, are sponsors of the Railway Safety Act of 2023, which aims to make changes to safety protocol for trains carrying hazardous material.
“It shouldn’t take an accident like Springfield, or Sandusky, or Steubenville for the country to pay attention,” Brown said. “We’re not giving up until this is fixed.”
University of Dayton professor and railway expert Michael Gorman said he fears the bill will have a negative impact on rail safety and also be costly.
“These are all regulations that make rail more difficult and more expensive. Then people will look to alternatives and that natural alternative is truck,” Gorman said. “Truck is much more dangerous than rail, pound for pound and dollar for dollar… and truck is a lot more expensive than rail. It will be less safe, and everything will get a little bit more expensive.”
Credit: Bill Lackey
Credit: Bill Lackey
Brown said the bill could empower local emergency personnel to respond to emergency situations. The Railway Safety Act would expand HAZMAT training grants for local law enforcement if passed.
Springfield Twp. fire chief Dave Nangle said training opportunities abound, but sending off portions of his small crew for a day of training across the state leaves him with only a handful of people to respond to emergencies. He has between six or seven workers on hand during weekdays.
Nangle responded to the March 4 derailment, where 28 cars of a 212-car Norfolk Southern train derailed near the Clark County fairgrounds. Although none of the derailed cars carried hazardous material, some cars on the train were carrying powerful acids and chemicals.
Nangle would like to see more funding funneled toward helping fire departments with their recruitment efforts and gathering updated equipment like fire trucks.
Reducing the risk of wheel bearing failure – the most common cause of these incidents, Brown said – through establishing requirements for wayside defect detectors and other requirements is another aim of the Railway Safety Act.
The bill would also require two-person crews manning trains and raise fines issued to railway companies when they break safety protocol.
If passed, the bill would require trains carrying hazardous material to report to the state about the contents of their train cars so the state can keep local fire departments and other emergency personnel in the loop about what’s passing through their area.
Gorman said this could create an “information overload” to state officials and emergency responders given the frequency of trains traveling with hazardous materials.
States would need to create a communication infrastructure to relay information to fire departments, and Gorman said he doubts fire departments would be able to staff workers near railroad crossings every time a train carrying hazardous materials pass through their area.
Per the Association of American Railroads, more than 99.9% of rail hazmat shipments reach their destination without a release caused by a train accident.
“The vast, vast, vast, vast, vast majority of the time, nothing happens,” Gorman said. “Trucks are more dangerous than trains on a pound for pound, mile per mile basis.”
Clyde Whitaker, an official at the SMART Transportation Division union, called the bill “common sense legislation.”
Whitaker said a two-person crew is a “vital safety component or safe operation.”
“The greedy railroads want one person on trains and to convert the conductor to the ground base position for large areas,” Whitaker said. “In an accident like East Palestine, how could this person immediately help the engineer? How can the conductor be there to assess and assist emergency personnel? The answer is it would not happen for quite some time.”
During a senate hearing on Wednesday, senators tried to pin down Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw about the legislation.
Shaw acknowledged a need for improvements but did not endorse the full bipartisan package co-sponsored by Ohio’s senators. He also would not divulge provisions to which he objected, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
“We support legislative efforts that use science and data to enhance the safety of the freight rail industry,” Shaw said, who has pledged “to rebuild our safety culture from the ground up.”
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