After a recent string of rail accidents involving its trains, Norfolk Southern Corp. and rail industry group the Association of American Railroads (AAR) this week have unveiled a spate of new safety initiatives in an effort to set their own operating standards before federal regulators do it for them.
Norfolk Southern today said it would establish a regional safety training center in Ohio—where all three incidents occurred—to train first responders. That move closely follows two other safety plans announced by the Atlanta-based railroad operator, which said it also plans to install more sensors along rail lines to scan the wheel bearings of passing cars and to join a federal system that allows railroad employees to confidentially report safety concerns.
At the same time, the AAR today released a set of steps it is taking to reach “a future with zero incidents and zero injuries” and to avoid a repeat of the Feb. 3 derailment that spilled toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio. Under the AAR’s plan, the rail industry would install approximately 1,000 new detectors, expand support for first responders, and initiate actions based on the preliminary accident report produced by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) about the East Palestine crash.
According to the AAR, those steps are part of its effort to regain public trust after the derailment even as regulators at the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and a bipartisan group of Senators in Congress debate stricter measures. “While participating in public policy discussions, railroads encourage policymakers to take an objective, data-driven approach. Policy actions taken reflexively that are not likely to achieve meaningful safety benefits could have a wide range of unintended economic and environmental consequences and a negative impact on the safe movement of all goods, including hazmat,” the AAR said in a release.
“Healthy railroads are essential to the U.S. economy, and consistently and reliably safe operations are essential to healthy railroads,” AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies said in a release. “Our long history of voluntarily employing safety measures that go above and beyond federal requirements proves our belief in that principle. While we will continue to follow the National Transportation Safety Board’s ongoing investigation in Ohio closely and recognize its deliberate, methodical, and fact-based approach, railroads are committed to taking appropriate steps now.”
Despite the rail industry’s effort to set its own safety rules, other groups are already lining up to support tighter government regulation. The train workers’ union the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) has already announced its support for the Rail Safety Act of 2023, a bill that would enhance safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials, establish requirements for wayside defect detectors, create a permanent requirement for railroads to operate with at least two-person crews, and increase fines for wrongdoing committed by rail carriers.
And Illinois-based environmental advocates with The Collins Law Firm have criticized Norfolk Southern’s six-point safety plan for vague language, a lack of specifics, and no clear timetable. "This is Norfolk Southern saying it doesn’t plan to do anything that matters,” the firm’s partner and owner Shawn Collins said in a release. “It just wants us to think that it’s doing something, while it plays for time, trusting that this gibberish will placate industry friendly regulators and elected officials until the horrific train derailment in East Palestine is off the front page. History has proven that this cynical strategy will work."
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