Politics Pre-empting East Palestine

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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Screen shot, WEDTN-2 News

FROM THE EDITOR, RAILWAY AGE, MARCH 2023 ISSUE: We interrupt this special report on the National Transportation Safety Board’s ongoing investigation into Norfolk Southern’s Feb. 3, 2023 derailment at East Palestine, Ohio, to clue you in on some same-old, same-old political initiatives from Washington, D.C., where, in a truth vs. fiction battle, fiction almost always gets the spotlight.

I’ll begin with what I and many others in this industry see as the basics. The derailment, fire and release of hazardous materials into the environment and its effects on the East Palestine community are serious. The NTSB has determined a probable cause—a freight car wheel bearing burnoff—released its findings in a preliminary report, and should produce a final, detailed report within the next year or so. Until then, there is not enough information to make a final, truthful, fact-filled, research- and science-based decision on what exactly happened, and what the industry needs to do to prevent a future occurrence. Norfolk Southern, as I see it, is doing everything it can to help the community recover and move on.

Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, there are those who have grabbed hold of this awful accident and attempted to get ahead of the NTSB. They’ve turned it into a vehicle to advance their own agendas, political or other, spreading, either from lack of knowledge, compromised ethics or both, bad information and exaggerations. The truth, which takes time to ascertain, is getting buried under a pile of political pronouncements and attempts to resurrect old, abandoned proposed regulations—namely, ECP brake requirements for HHFTs (high-hazard flammable trains) and minimum crew size legislation—that have, in my opinion, little or nothing to do with safety or science. You can take that to the next Capitol Hill hearing.

One example is the “bipartisan” (a seldom-heard word) Railway Safety Act of 2023, whose stated purpose is “to enhance safety requirements for trains transporting hazardous materials, and for other purposes.”

Sens. J. D. Vance (R-Ohio), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Bob Casey and John Fetterman (D-Pa.) introduced this bill. It includes “new safety requirements and procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials like vinyl chloride.” These include advance notice from railroads to state emergency response officials about hazmat-carrying trains, preventing blocked grade crossings, new rules for train size and weight, higher maximum fines for safety violations, addressing wheel bearing failure risk by ramping up detection and inspection, and requiring “well-trained, two-person crews aboard every train.”

Brown told CNN that the people of East Palestine “don’t want politicians coming in and disrupting things. They want action. They want solutions. That’s what J.D. Vance and I are doing.”

“I … I … I”: “Pay attention to what I’m doing for you! Re-elect me in 2024!”

Politics, or a genuine interest in protecting constituents? I’ll go with the former.

This bill will most likely end up right where it belongs: in the round file, dead as a doornail. I hope I’m right.