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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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