Jefferies to Buttigieg: ‘Allowing Uncorrected Misunderstandings Undercuts Public Confidence’

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
image description

Diplomacy isn’t easy. Successful practitioners are good listeners with open minds, articulate, tactful, knowledgeable and credible. For the railroad industry, an understanding of how things get done on Capitol Hill is essential for dealing with regulators and legislators. While there may be a lot of political “noise” generated for appearance’s sake, generally the outcome is something everyone can live with—not perfect, but doable.

This has largely been the case—until recently. These days, given Washington’s current cesspool of political partisanship, diplomacy has become very one-sided, even an exercise in frustration. This is why the Association of American Railroads and its CEO, Ian Jefferies—who knows his way around Capitol Hill—deserve a lot of credit for trying to preserve at least a semblance of a cooperative relationship with the U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Railroad Administration, whose politically appointed heads are engaging in behavior that, frankly, is disonorevole.* In my 31-plus years at Railway Age, I’ve never seen anything like it. Il comportamento onorevole non esiste più.

The political fog seeping out of the windows and doors of 1200 New Jersey Ave., S.E. has become dense, at times toxic. It has enveloped an agency whose prime directive should be, in an imperfect world, “a rigorous, transparent and expert approach to transportation safety,” as Capitol Hill Contributing Editor Frank Wilner observes through glasses that have never been rose-colored. What exactly is the AAR supposed to do?

Put it in writing. Speak the truth and set the record straight—backing it up with facts and science—and hope that Pete Buttigieg and Amit Bose will take a break from their political agendas, listen, and learn. In my humble opinion, the odds of that happening are about as high as Taylor Swift rooting for the San Francisco 49ers in the upcoming Super Bowl.

Jefferies and his AAR team spent a lot of time and resources crafting a letter to Buttigieg. It’s very well done, respectful to a fault and quite the exercise in diplomacy and tact. Will DOT‘s Buttigieg & Bose bother to read it? Let’s be real, folks. Probably not. You can download the entire letter below. Here are a few of what I consider the salient points (with my emphasis in italics):

“We are driving every day to find ways to continue to reduce injuries and accidents. We will not relent on this core mission. That is why it is so disheartening to hear those who know better misrepresent the industry’s safety record—and its continuing efforts to become even safer— furtherance of their own agendas. Allowing misunderstandings about freight rail safety to go uncorrected undercuts public confidence, not only in the safety of one key component of our nation’s critical infrastructure, but also in your Department, which has worked hard to contribute to the record of continual safety improvement we have today. The rail industry knows that you recognize our commitment to rail safety and our longstanding safety record. That is why I am asking for your assistance in making sure those facts are understood by all, so that we and the Department can move forward focused on real, meaningful opportunities for continued safety improvement.”

“Feb. 3 marked the one-year anniversary of the train derailment in East Palestine, and the anniversary has triggered renewed public interest in the event and in freight rail safety more broadly. This is an opportunity to correct partial truths and misinformation as well as to educate the country about how important and safe freight rail is, and how committed the railroads are to enhancing safety even further. The anniversary should not be used as a political opportunity to promote distrust.

“Even as rail remains by far the safest way to move freight on land, work remains to reduce incident rates. Preliminary government data indicates that accidents on the main line rail network ticked up slightly in the first 10 months of 2023. This data is subject to change, but regardless, context is essential. For instance, some like to cite figures such as ‘1,000 derailments per year’ because it sounds alarming. But the reality—which you well know—is that more than three-quarters of those derailments are in rail yards or other low-speed tracks—akin to fender benders—not on the main rail lines that carry freight around the country. It is hard to see how the public interest is served by allowing the false notion that there are 1,000 East Palestine type derailments a year to pervade public understanding.”

“While some who should know better have recently suggested that a large percentage of wayside detectors are out of service on any particular day, independent analysis by FRA proves the opposite. FRA’s Summary Report on the ‘High-Hazard Flammable Train Route Assessment & Legacy Tank Car Focused Inspection Program,’ which was published in January 2024, ‘found that, generally, railroads closely monitored the performance of the detector network. This includes oversight and monitoring of trending alarms, failed communication issues, and overall detector health.’  As part of its focused inspection, FRA inspected more than 2,600 wayside detectors on 28 different railroads across the nation’s rail network and found less than 5% of detectors deviated from the railroad’s standards among those inspected. It is a sad commentary on today’s public discourse that this technology, which railroads developed, paid for, installed, and maintain 100% voluntarily is now being held up by some as evidence that the rail industry is “under-regulated.” As the Secretary of Transportation, you more than anyone understand the error in that thinking and are in a unique position to correct it.”

My personal message to Buttigieg & Bose: If the last sentence of the preceding paragraph has any truth to it, stop spreading the spazzatura. Prima o poi tornerà e ti morderà.


Tags: ,