Freight train passing at railroad crossing. (Thomas Winz | The Image Bank, via Getty)
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called Wednesday for the federal authority responsible for determining the causes of transportation casualties to investigate the safety culture at all major North American freight railroads.
Following the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern derailment that caused a toxic chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio, Schumer, a New York Democrat, said in a letter to National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy that the board should investigate safety practices at the seven Class I freight railroads operating in the United States.
A nationwide network of the seven largest freight railroads – BNSF, Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, CSX, Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific – operates across the United States.
Schumer criticized the industry for lobbying for deregulation and asked the board to analyze if those efforts have increased derailments. He also asked NTSB to determine if railroads ignore their own safety best practices and to issue recommendations for regulations that could reduce future incidents.
“I am hopeful that if the NTSB executes a comprehensive and rigorous investigation into the safety practices and culture at all Class I railroads, you can assure Americans that freight rail safety will dramatically improve,” Schumer wrote.
The letter singled out a regulation on notifications related to trains carrying hazardous or flammable material, asking if it made sense that such trains only of a certain size should have to notify local communities.
A spokesman for the agency said it had no immediate response Wednesday.
“We don’t really have much to say other than we appreciate the leader’s commitment to safety,” NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway said in a phone interview. “We are reviewing the letter and we’ll respond to him.”
Focus on profits
In remarks on the Senate floor, Schumer said a “questionable safety culture” at Norfolk Southern was at least partially to blame for the East Palestine derailment.
Railroads’ focus on profits had led to a lax safety culture in the industry generally, he said.
The seven Class I railroads made $22 billion in profits in the first nine months of last year, while spending $25 billion on dividends and stock buybacks, Politfact reported, citing company reports.
In the last five years, accidents involving the largest freight railroads caused 2,768 deaths, while the railroads have cut 20% of their workforce, Schumer said.
“Norfolk Southern is just one example of a dangerous, industry-wide trend within the rail industry that puts profits over people’s safety,” he said.
Representatives for the American Association of Railroads, the industry’s advocacy group in Washington, did not return a message seeking comment Wednesday.
The board should expand that investigation to look at all Class I railroads, Schumer said.
But such a large-scale investigation as Schumer suggested would be unusual for the NTSB, which usually examines individual incidents.
While the recommendations that come from an incident report can have a nationwide reach, it’s rare for the agency to conduct a nationwide inquiry into essentially an entire industry.
The last investigation to focus broadly on an organization’s safety culture was the 2014 probe of Metro North in the New York area following five major accidents on its tracks, Holloway said.
Board approves merger
If the NTSB decides to take up Schumer’s request, it could be investigating six railroads instead of seven.
Also Wednesday, the Surface Transportation Board, a federal commission that oversees the rail industry, approved the merger of the two smallest Class I railroads, Canadian Pacific Railway and Kansas City Southern.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Sam Graves, a Republican from Missouri, applauded the move in a written statement.
“This merger has enormous potential to promote increased competition among railroads and other transportation modes, improve commerce and access to markets, and streamline domestic and cross-border movement of goods,” Graves said. “This is especially critical at a time when delays and backlogs continue to trouble our Nation’s supply chain.”
Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have been more skeptical. Warren said in a March 3 letter that the merger would reduce competition, eliminate jobs and increase shipping costs.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct transposed digits in the number of freight railroad deaths.
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