The Washington Post
Freight rail safety trumps politics
The East Palestine tragedy leads to a bipartisan Senate bill.
THE OVERRIDING plea from those in and around East Palestine, Ohio, where a Norfolk Southern train derailed and caused catastrophic damage is: fix the problems that caused this. It’s encouraging that a few U.S. senators heard that message and moved beyond scoring political points to introduce meaningful, bipartisan legislation to improve freight rail safety.
The Railway Safety Act of 2023, spearheaded by Ohio senators Sherrod Brown (D) and J.D. Vance (R), makes long overdue updates to the nation’s freight rail safety and maintenance. Its provisions would likely have prevented the Feb. 3 disaster or, at least, significantly reduced the harm. Lawmakers should pass it swiftly, and the president should sign it.
There is an urgency to act. Last weekend, another Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in Ohio. As National Transportation Safety Board chair Jennifer Homendy told Postlive, “The numbers are trending upward on accidents overall, and also for Norfolk Southern.”
The heart of the problem in East Palestine was a faulty bearing, the place where a railcar wheel connects to the axle. The system that Norfolk Southern set up to monitor when wheel bearings fail caught the problem, but at a point where it was far too late. Even as the crew tried to stop the train, Car 23 derailed, triggering many others to leave the tracks as well. They included tank cars carrying hazardous materials.
There is currently no federal standard for the placement of “hotbox” detectors, which alert train operators that wheel bearings are defective and becoming dangerously overheated. Norfolk Southern had some that were spaced at 20-mile intervals, which turned out to be a critical mistake. The Railway Safety Act would require freight rail to place wayside detectors that monitor wheel bearings no farther apart than every 10 miles.
The legislation also significantly increases fines for safety violations (the current maximum is $225,455), requires at least two crew members on trains carrying toxic material (the East Palestine train did have two crew and a trainee), strengthens requirements and emergency plans for all trains carrying hazardous materials, and enhances training and communication with first responders.
The biggest flaw is that this doesn’t go far enough. For example, devices to monitor wheel bearing vibrations could have caught the problem on Car 23 weeks, if not months, before it rolled into East Palestine, experts say. The current system most freight railways rely on monitors the temperature of a wheel bearing, but the temperature doesn’t spike until a major problem is underway. When Norfolk Southern chief executive Alan Shaw appears before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Thursday, he should be asked why Norfolk Southern isn’t using the latest technology, and be pressed to explain the company’s poor safety record recently.
Still, it is a welcome development to see Republicans and Democrats uniting to push freight rail to change. Their effort already appears to be paying off. Norfolk Southern has announced it will install more detectors, and the Association of American Railroads has announced voluntary action the major freight rail carriers are taking to enhance bearing monitoring and emergency response.
But it would be a mistake to stop there. No senator or representative wants to see a similar derailment in his or her state. Passing this legislation would go a long way toward preventing another tragedy.