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Critics Fear Post- East Palestine Rail Bill Adds Costs, Not Safety, For Consumers

It is called the Railway Safety Act, but critics fear the bill is more about politics than protecting the public.

And advocates for Pennsylvania’s rail industry are particularly concerned about the impact it could have on the cost of moving the state’s 50 million tons of freight each year.

“It doesn’t target actual safety issues in the industry and transportation more broadly,” Marc Scribner, senior transportation policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, told DVJournal. “This was hastily assembled from existing policy priorities, mainly from the left…for what it claims to be doing, it’s poorly targeted, and it fails on its own terms.”

The bill, whose sponsors include populists like Ohio Sens. J.D. Vance (R) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D), emerged weeks after a train derailed in East Palestine in early February. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, 11 tank cars from the Norfolk Southern Railway train went off the tracks and burned, damaging 12 other non-derailed cars.

“It shouldn’t take a massive railroad disaster for elected officials to put partisanship aside and work together for the people we serve – not corporations like Norfolk Southern,” railed Brown when announcing the bill. “Rail lobbyists have fought for years to protect their profits at the expense of communities…These commonsense, bipartisan safety measures will finally hold big railroad companies accountable…and prevent future tragedies…”

The legislation – supported by both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump –  enacts new requirements for freight trains, including a two-person crew mandate, trackside detector requirements, and increased and unknown regulations for hazardous material transportation.

“Congress should do everything it can to ensure that what happened in East Palestine never happens again,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a bill co-sponsor. “For far too long, the rail industry, and the government agencies that regulate it, have prioritized their bottom line over safety and resiliency. This comprehensive bill would help prevent future catastrophic derailments.”

But critics of the bill note it would have had no impact on the events in East Palestine. And it does not acknowledge rail’s safety record as it moves millions of tons of freight daily.

The bill’s two-person crew mandate particularly rankles critics.

“Many of the provisions, including a crew size mandate, are longstanding policy reforms that have been sought by certain stakeholders that appear grafted into this act even though they are not relevant to the East Palestine incident the act,” said Benjamin Dierker, executive director of the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (AII). “The crew size mandate is curious given that there is already a rulemaking process to accomplish that underway by the Federal Railroad Administration. This particular provision wouldn’t have impacted East Palestine because it already had three personnel on the train.”

Competitive Enterprise Institute’s vice president for strategy and senior fellow, Iain Murray, agreed, arguing the rule change is about union dues, not saving lives.

“[The two-man crew] has been the top issue on railway labor union wish list for years. And so, they’ve seen this opportunity to come forward and say, ‘We believe in safety. We believe in two-man crews. Pass this bill, and everything will be fine.’”

There’s also concern in Pennsylvania regarding the potential for a two-person crew requirement. The Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association wrote state lawmakers in June that the potential mandate is “unnecessary and expensive” because it “discourages continued technological advances in the field of autonomous vehicles.” Like AII, the PMA memo note there were three crew members on the East Palestine train at the time of the tragic crash.

Pennsylvania has a version of the Railway Safety Act working its way through the state legislature.

But there is little empirical data backing up the claim that more personnel in an industry that is becoming increasingly automated will increase safety.

The Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, has promoted the two-person crew since at least 2013. The Association of American Railroads believes it is a bad idea, pointing to one-person crew use in the U.S. and the globe. Japan, New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden, and the UK all feature single-crew locomotives.

Then there is the legislation’s potential impact on innovation in the freight rail industry.

“There are systems that are being experimented on around that will probably give a much better automatic inspection of track and wheel safety than the technology being locked in with this bill,” Murray said. “The sort of mandates that they’re using have led to technology stagnating…we want technology to develop.”

Dierker shares a similar concern. “Some of these are positive train control technology, automatic track inspection tools, and even wayside defect detectors. Where that gets challenging is assessing whether industry or government should set the standard.”

Serious questions remain regarding whether the Railway Safety Act will make shipping safer for an industry that boasts a robust safety record.

“If you compare it across modes of transportation, you see that rail is far safer than trucks,” said Scribner. “Sound policymaking requires that you think about these competitive interactions between modes of transportation. If you impose a rule on one and that causes customers to choose a less safe alternative, you haven’t improved safety. You’ve worsened it.”

“Road shipping is much, much more dangerous than rail shipping,” said Murray. “If you want to ship hazardous material around the country, rail is very definitely the way to go. Anything that discourages people from shipping hazardous material by rail is probably a step backward for safety.”

The ultimate loser, however, may be the U.S. consumer should the Railway Safety Act become law. Murray, Scribner, and Dierker all warned about “real costs” in the legislation, including the potential for rising prices to offset higher shipping costs.

The Senate Commerce Committee approved the bill in May, but the legislation has yet to make it to the full Senate.

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Buttigieg Was Slow to East Palestine but Rushed to Philly. DVJ Asked Him Why

It took nearly three weeks for U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to make time to come to the scene of a Feb. 3 toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, just minutes from the Pennsylvania border.

Former President Donald Trump, hauling thousands of bottles of “Trump Water” along the way, made the trip before Buttigieg did.

But it took less than three days for “Mayor Pete” to travel to Philadelphia and hold a press conference at the site of the I-95 bridge collapse, letting affluent suburbanites know he was on the job.

“This tragic crash is having an outsize impact on commuters and goods moving up and down the I-95 corridor,” Buttigieg told the press. “It’s a key artery for the movement of people and goods. That’s why it’s important to get this restored quickly.”

Why did Buttigieg clear his calendar for a Philly visit after waiting so long to show up in rural, red-state Ohio? DVJournal asked him that question at Monday’s press conference.

“When I went [to East Palestine], I decided to break from the precedent, the norm, that generally transportation secretaries don’t go to active response sites,” Buttigieg said. “Part of what I found was important — especially when you saw all the politicization and misinformation that the people of East Palestine had to deal with — is that we’re just in a new world in terms of the importance of presence to help make sure everybody understands what is happening, the coordination that is happening, the teamwork that’s happening.

“And so, in the same way that I value the ongoing conversation that I have with people I spend time with on the ground in East Palestine, I value the opportunity to be both on the ground and coordinating over the phone with everybody who’s involved in the [Philadelphia] response.”

Buttigieg’s claim that his learning curve covers the disparity was met with skepticism. Critics argue the slow response in East Palestine was more evidence that rural, largely White communities are a low priority for the East Coast elites who dominate the Democratic Party.

In February, CNN reporters tried to downplay criticism of Buttigieg’s absence. “Former President Trump is going to Ohio today,” reported CNN anchor Poppy Harlow. “East Palestine, to be specific, the site of the toxic train wreck in a county where he won more than 70 percent of the vote in 2020… the transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, hasn’t been yet. Trump capitalizing on that?”

The Washington Post noted at the time that Trump carried East Palestine with nearly 70 percent of the vote. It quoted former Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan (D), “who said that what he described as the slow response from the federal government reinforced the idea that officials in Washington don’t care about voters in Ohio.”

“You want to show the people in that community … that when something like this happens that their government is able to react in an effective and efficient way, in an immediate way,” Ryan said. “The feedback we’re hearing from the community, people in the community, is that nobody cared.”

On the other hand, Philadelphia is a Democratic stronghold along the Acela corridor and a large contingent of Black voters — a key part of the coalition that made Biden his party’s nominee and, eventually, president. Biden, who at age 80 rarely travels for politics, has already made multiple stops in the area since taking office. And he is scheduled to appear in Philadelphia on Saturday, where he will receive the AFL-CIO’s endorsement.

The class divide and partisan politics are obvious, Republicans say.

Pothole Pete continues to play politics as he flirts with battleground state Pennsylvania while turning a blind eye to solidly red Ohio,” said Republican National Committee spokesperson Rachel Lee. “Buttigieg’s political aspirations have long been clear, and voters know exactly where his true priorities lie.”

State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin) took issue with Buttigieg’s claim that he had to appear in person to address “politicization and misinformation.”

“The genuine fear and concern from the residents affected by the train derailment were never about politics or ‘misinformation,’” Mastriano said. “My Senate committee (veteran’s affairs and emergency preparedness) held the first hearing in the nation to hear testimony from those folks. They expressed fears that they may never feel comfortable living in their communities again.

“I’m pleased to see that Mayor/Secretary Pete visited the I-95 site so quickly,” added Mastriano. “But it shouldn’t have taken him over 20 days to come to East Palestine to tour the disaster zone and hear the concerns of the residents.”

Kim Bedillion, president of the Pennridge Area Republican Club, noted Buttigieg’s lack of experience and what many see as a troubled record ionthe job. “One would hope that Secretary Buttigieg’s relatively speedy response to the I-95 overpass collapse when compared to his three-week delay in visiting East Palestine is not politically motivated, but considering that East Palestine has a Republican mayor and Philadelphia is decidedly Democrat, politics may very well have played a part.”


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Sens. Casey, Fetterman, and Brown Introduce Railroad Accountability Bill

As people in Ohio and Pennsylvania still deal with the aftermath of the Norfolk Southern derailment, where railcars carrying toxins overturned, Pennsylvania Sens. Bob Casey and John Fetterman and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, all Democrats, introduced the Railway Accountability Act. They and Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) introduced the Railway Safety Act earlier this month. 

Vance did not respond when asked why he had not signed on to the Railway Accountability Act. Fetterman, who spent six weeks hospitalized for depression, was working from the hospital, his staff said.

He is expected to be back in the Senate on April 17.

Issues addressed by the Railway Accountability Act include broken rims, a leading cause of derailments; brake inspections when trains are not moving; more transparent safety information; ensuring emergency brake signals function properly: and requiring major railroads to report close calls to a confidential system.

“Too many communities in Pennsylvania and nationwide have suffered from catastrophic train derailments. The Railway Accountability Act would implement additional commonsense safety measures to help prevent these disasters in the future,” said Casey. “Along with the Railway Safety Act, this bill will make freight rail safer and protect communities from preventable tragedies.”

Labor unions, including the Transport Workers of America (TWU), the National Conference of Firemen & Oilers (NCFO), and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers-Mechanical Division (SMART-MD) support the legislation.

Norfolk Southern did not respond when asked to comment.

“The legislation is unlikely to help,” said Iain Murray, vice president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “It includes things like minimum crew member sizes that research has been unable to show any safety benefit from. However, what is likely is that the bill will do several things probably detrimental to safety, like concentrating hazardous materials on fewer trains, making derailments – which are still likely to occur – more dangerous. Shippers might also prefer to ship by road rather than slower trains, and we do know for a fact that shipping hazardous materials by road is more dangerous than shipping by rail, even under current standards.”

The earlier bipartisan Railway Safety Act included enhanced safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials, requiring wayside defect detectors, requiring that railroads operate trains with at least two-person crews, and increasing fines for railroads found to have committed wrongdoing, according to a press release.

Pennsylvania lawmakers held hearings into what happened when the Norfolk Southern train derailed just across the state line in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3. Recently, state Senate Veteran’s Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee members grilled Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw.

Residents have said exposure to toxic chemicals during a controlled burn has caused various health issues. There are also concerns about water pollution and chemicals that rained down onto the soil where crops are grown.

Shaw has promised to help the residents in both states affected by the accident. “I am determined to make this right,” he said at the hearing. “Norfolk Southern is determined to clean the site safely. We’ll get the job done and help these communities thrive.”

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JACKSON: Derailment Should Not Be an Opportunity for Political Grandstanding

Fortunately, there were no fatalities in the East Palestine, Ohio, freight train derailment, but there is plenty of legitimate concern regarding the environmental and human health consequences it caused. Unfortunately, instead of finding ways to help the people of East Palestine and proposing rational, common-sense steps forward, political discourse continues to be brutally murdered by interests that have only raw partisan advantage in mind.

Long after a wreck released more than 100,000 gallons of toxic materials, forced an evacuation of residents, and contaminated nearby soil and water, the White House made a bold statement that was an obvious effort to divert attention away from the benign neglect it initially exhibited.

“Congressional Republicans and former Trump administration officials owe East Palestine an apology for selling them out to rail industry lobbyists when they dismantled Obama-Biden rail safety protections as well as EPA powers to rapidly contain spills,” said White House spokesman Andrew Bates.

Those same congressional Republicans also “laid the groundwork for the Trump administration to tear up requirements for more effective train brakes,” Bates continued. “Last year,” he ranted, “most House Republicans wanted to defund our ability to protect drinking water.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, so late arriving at the scene of the Norfolk Southern accident that he might as well not have bothered to go, has also used the victims of the Ohio village of 4,800 as props. While families were trying to restore their lives, Buttigieg didn’t let the crisis go to waste. He insisted that federal regulation should require at least two crew members aboard each train cab, and called for the industry to provide paid sick leave for all employees, claiming it would make rail travel safer. According to NPR, Buttigieg also mentioned that Washington should “mandate a better braking system on trains that carry volatile fuels, chemicals and other toxic substances.”

Interestingly, none of these proposals are related to the East Palestine derailment.

First, a three-member crew was aboard the train that derailed. That’s one more than the Federal Railroad Administration wants to require and two more than is necessary for safe travel. Single-person crews are typical in Europe and Australia, and they are no less safe than the rail lines in the United States, where multiple-person crews operate.

Consulting firm Oliver Wyman has determined that the European “countries with the best safety records (least fatalities and weighted serious injuries per million train-kilometers) are all countries where railroads operate with single-person crews.”

The problem for Biden, Buttigieg and their allies is that rail travel has been made safer by Positive Train Control systems, which have been in operation for about two years over nearly all of the 58,000 miles of freight and passenger rail routes that cross this country. The development of PTCs means that trains don’t need an additional crew member whose role is redundant.

Buttigieg’s insistence that rail companies provide paid sick leave to all employees has no connection to the East Palestine derailment. No one has claimed it was caused by workers too ill to do their jobs. Nor is there any evidence that ailing crews were responsible. But, of course, extending paid sick leave to workers is a major labor union objective. Is Buttigieg, a federal official, negotiating publicly, yet stealthily, on behalf of those unions, which were willing to shut down freight-rail service last fall over their demand for paid sick leave?

The transportation secretary also used the incident to advance his pro-union agenda to “modernize braking regulations and increase the use of electronically controlled pneumatic brakes,” particularly electronically controlled pneumatic, or ECP, brakes.

Again, Buttigieg is exploiting the crash to further a political agenda. National Transportation Safety Board Chairperson Jennifer Homendy made this clear when she tweeted that even if the ECP brake rule had been implemented, it would not have prevented the Norfolk Southern train from leaving the tracks.

According to Homendy’s tweet, “The ECP braking rule would’ve applied ONLY to HIGH HAZARD FLAMMABLE TRAINS. The train that derailed in East Palestine was a MIXED FREIGHT TRAIN containing only 3 placarded Class 3 flammable liquids cars.”

Other items from Buttigieg’s list are just as disconnected from the East Palestine disaster as those mentioned above.

While most of us see a tragedy that will continue to unfold for years, if not decades, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and one-time presidential primary candidate sees political opportunity. He still wants to be president, and a train wreck that he seemed to care little about initially became a moment in which he could burnish his progressive creds and shore up support from organized labor. 

Unfortunately for East Palestine, Ohio, the town is his springboard for a future campaign.

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PA Senate Committee Demands Answers on East Palestine Derailment

Pennsylvania state senators hammered Norfolk Southern Railway’s chef executive Monday over his company’s recent train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. It also affected Pennsylvania residents just across the state line.

The Senate Veteran’s Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, chaired by Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin) and Sen. Katie Muth (D-Berks/Chester/Montgomery), asked Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw a battery of questions about the decision for a controlled burn of rail cars that carried toxic chemicals at the East Palestine derailment site.

“Who specifically in unified command said to do this?” Mastriano asked. “You’re blaming it on the fire chief in East Palestine. Your cars are on fire, it’s your railroad, and you’re going to leave it to the local fire chief who never had to deal with such a catastrophe before? Who said, ‘We’re going to this’?”

Shaw said the decision was made by “unified command” and that “ultimately, the decision falls on the incident commander under consultation with unified command.”

Sen. Tracy Pennycuick (R-Bucks/Montgomery) claimed the committee was “kind of glossing over” the seriousness of the situation in East Palestine just after the derailment.

“I personally think that the fire chief did the right thing,” she argued. “I’ve seen a helicopter explode, and I’ve seen the injuries when we didn’t do a controlled burn and let the fuel out.”

“I’m just trying to see if you can paint a picture for us of what that might have looked like if you had not done a controlled burn,” she said, calling it “important that we all understand what it would have looked like because I think (that) would have been catastrophic in life and property.”

Shaw responded that “the very real concern” at the time “was there would have been an uncontrolled, catastrophic explosion which would have shot vinyl chloride gas which, as you know, is denser than air, throughout the community along with shrapnel.

“So, all the relevant parties got together and modeled the dispersion, the government authorities modeled the dispersion with inputs from a number of sources,” he said.

Shaw added post-burn testing in the area indicated that “it was a success. It worked.” He said Norfolk Southern would compensate residents and businesses for their losses and reimburse them for medical care.

Andrew Whelton, a professor of civil, environmental, and ecological engineering at Purdue University, argued before the committee that the EPA and state agencies are not testing for all the toxic chemicals that might have been released in the incident.

Whelton, who has been studying soil, water, and air samples of the area with a team of volunteer researchers, said if a test is not done for certain cancer-causing chemicals, investigators won’t find them.

“The numbers don’t matter,” he said. “It matters what you test for.”

Mastriano, at one point, claimed that when he visited the site with his staff, their upper respiratory tracts burned and they developed rashes. Residents have told him about various health problems stemming from the wreck, he said.

The committee also heard briefly from railroad accident investigator Robert Comer, who said the railcars that carried the toxic chemicals did not belong to Norfolk Southern but to private companies. He speculated as to whether the railroad had checked those cars for problems before it added them to the train.

A bearing that caught fire is being blamed preliminarily for the derailment. Previously, the National Transportation Safety Board said the train continued running with an overheated bearing for 20 miles before it derailed, despite warning indicators.

Comer said poor track conditions with old, wooden railroad ties could also have played a role in the accident.

Shaw promised to help the residents and clean up the area affected by the derailment.

“I am determined to make this right,” said Shaw. “Norfolk Southern is determined to clean the site safely. We’ll get the job done and help these communities thrive.”

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Counterpoint: The War on Woke Is a Scam on Middle America

For an alternate viewpoint, see: Point: To Be Woke Is to Be MAGA

Buckle up, team: I’m a White man from the Midwest with a story to tell about wokeness.

I live in an Ohio railroad town. Locals hear trains calling through the night, wait them out at crossings, and photograph them trundling along the river past the old mill downtown. But as our neighbors two counties over in East Palestine know, those cars don’t just carry freight or Old World charm — they also bring danger.

While we refreshed local EPA reports in the days after the Norfolk Southern derailment, I wondered who’d get blamed for it. There was no shortage of options.

Norfolk Southern skimped on maintenance, overstretched its workers, and used the profits to hike its stock price.

Ohio’s governor and the local congressman accepted thousands from the company while the statehouse dutifully killed a bipartisan rail safety bill the company lobbied against. Former president Donald Trump, who showed up after the crash to promote his bottled water brand, had killed an Obama-era regulation to prevent accidents like these.

But on the MAGA circuit, none of these were to blame.

Instead, as the Ohio Capital Journal’s Marilou Johanek put it, we got “opportunists exploiting East Palestine’s suffering population with politics and race-baiting.” In this telling, it wasn’t corporate or government corruption that caused the suffering in East Palestine. It was “wokeness.”

Fox host Tucker Carlson proclaimed that East Palestine was affected because it “is overwhelmingly White, and it’s politically conservative.” As writer Greg Sargent summarized, Carlson alleged the administration would have cared more “if the accident had happened in Philadelphia or Detroit — wink, wink.”

“If this train derailment happened in downtown Atlanta in the densely populated Black neighborhoods,” agreed far-right activist Charlie Kirk, “this would be the number-one news story.” The millionaire talk show host insisted that our leaders “hate working-class Whites,” and, in fact, there’s a whole “crusade against White people.”

Fox talking head Jesse Waters played a similar note, asking this about Michael Regan, President Biden’s Black EPA administrator: “Is this his idea of fighting environmental racism? Spilling toxic chemicals on poor White people in Ohio?

Donald Trump Jr., for his part, denigrated Treasury Secretary Pete Buttigieg as “the gay guy.”

This is the “war on woke” sham in a nutshell.

Well-heeled politicians and millionaire MAGA media figures tell poor Whites to blame Black people, LGBTQ people, and vague liberal ideas for troubles any sensible person would blame on a greedy corporation and the bought-off politicians — from the GOP-run Ohio statehouse on up to the White House — who enabled it.

Even while lambasting President Biden, they had little to say about his bad decision to snub the railroad unions, perhaps because most Republicans — many flush with railroad cash — supported that, too. The only beneficiaries are the bad actors who poisoned the poor Ohio community these pundits claim to represent from their perches in New York or Washington.

They play the same game all over.

Right-wing politicians rail against “woke corporations” only to collect corporate campaign cashpush corporate tax cuts, and oppose minimum wage hikes, sick leave, and union organizing. They ban books about race and viciously attack LGBTQ kids to protect education while systematically underfunding schools.

A self-described “anti-woke budget” drafted by former Trump officials would cut the “woke” Environmental Protection Agency by 30 percent. What a gift to East Palestine, where the EPA is doing emergency cleanup operations.

This hateful, fact-free rhetoric is doing incredible damage.

It spreads cruel and dangerous anti-LGBTQ laws. It’s gutting classroom libraries. It’s led to absurd conspiracy theories, an emboldened and violent White supremacist fringe, and the January 6 coup attempt. It divides urban and rural communities of every race and color who might otherwise work together against influential people who do them wrong.

In court, a lawyer for Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida recently defined “woke” as the “general belief in systemic injustices in the country.” Ask yourself: Why would a powerful politician want to banish that belief?

Instead, the MAGA bargain for Middle America goes something like this: If we hurt other people worse, is it OK if we hurt you, too?

Sorry, but I guess this White Ohioan would rather be woke.

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