Could disastrous train derailments be minimized? Question put to NTSB

Ever since the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, the calls for improved railroad safety have been growing louder.

Nationwide, the government says some of these derailments could have been minimized, if certain safety recommendations were already in place. We took that question to the federal safety investigators, Congress, and the train industry to see what could have prevented these accidents.

New bills are also picking up steam across party lines in a very divided Congress. “Clearly we have a problem in the rail industry because we’ve got 1,000 train derailments every single year,” said Ohio Senator J.D. Vance. Senators from Ohio and Pennsylvania proposed a bill that both Democrats and Republicans say would prevent future train disasters. The bill would create requirements for detectors that take the temperature of each railcar wheel as it passes. That was an issue in the East Palestine derailment and increase fines for rail carriers that break the rules. “I’m a little bit concerned, because we haven’t come out with our final recommendations yet,” says National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy.

The N.T.S.B. is overseeing the investigation in Ohio.

They showed us this list of recommendations that the board has tried to get Congress to pass before the East Palestine derailment. They include notifying communities when hazardous materials are transported by rail through their towns, calling for railroads to minimize safety risks to first responders, and improving the design of tank cars. “We have recommendations, stemming back years to fortify those tank cars,” says Homendy. She says the recommendations would have minimized the potential exposure to hazardous materials had they been in place for the East Palestine incident.

Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey told us it’s the railroad lobbyists who are standing in the way. “Too often in the past, the rail companies have opposed any kind of reform, especially reform that would lead to some measure of accountability,” said Senator Casey.

We looked through political contributions. According to the non-profit group, OpenSecrets, which tracks political donations, the rail industry donated $3,215,113 to political candidates between 2021 and 2022. Of that, 1.4 million went to Democrats. 1.7 went to Republicans.

Ian Jefferies is the CEO of the Association of American Railroads, which lobbies members of congress on behalf of the railroad companies. We asked him how he would respond to critics who question if lobbyists are standing in the way of changes that could make cities and people safer. “I think we have a demonstrated track record of boisterously supporting smart safety improvements and I would take significant issue that railroads are opposed to opposed to all regulation,” said Jefferies.

As for this latest push for a new law to change railroad safety, right now it’s working its way through the different committees here on Capitol Hill. It’s not clear how soon or if it could get a vote.

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