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Federal agencies, senators unveil plans aimed at boosting rail safety

In a show of support to the communities of East Palestine, Ohio, where a Norfolk Southern train derailed on Feb. 3, federal agencies and a bipartisan group of senators unveiled plans Wednesday to bolster rail safety. 

First, the Federal Railroad Administration announced it wants to conduct focused inspections on train routes that see a lot of hazardous materials traffic.

FRA will work with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to identify routes where high-hazard flammable trains travel and examine those tracks using both technology and human inspections. FRA and PHMSA will also be looking at routes where the traffic includes trains carrying large volumes of hazmat commodities. The agencies will start off inspecting the NS route where the Feb. 3 derailment occurred, FRA said Wednesday.

The technology that FRA will deploy is automated track inspection, which the agency says assesses the overall condition of the rail infrastructure. FRA will also be looking to see if the railroads complied with regulation pertaining to track upkeep. The data the agency compiles will be shared with the railroads and railroad unions.

FRA operates a small fleet of track geometry vehicles through its automated track inspection program (ATIP).

“FRA is vigorously responding to the concerns expressed by residents of East Palestine and the surrounding areas, and as a result of the recent derailment, we are ramping up our safety efforts across the country,” said FRA Administrator Amit Bose in a news release. “FRA will begin ATIP and visual inspections of Norfolk Southern Railway track in the vicinity of East Palestine. Many more inspections will follow, and the data that they yield will allow us, as well as railroads, labor and state and local governments, to implement better-informed decisions and policies regarding rail safety.”

Wednesday’s announcement followed a safety advisory FRA issued this week asking the railroads to improve safety procedures surrounding the use of hot box detectors, which could include better integration of the data from them.

Hot box detectors gauge the temperature of the wheel bearings of passing trains. Federal investigators are looking at how an overheated bearing might have contributed or led to the derailment of the Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) train in East Palestine. 

The U.S. Department of Transportation, FRA’s parent agency, has recently urged the rail industry via Secretary Pete Buttigieg to participate in a program where workers can contact DOT anonymously if there are perceived issues with operations. DOT also recommended other actions, such as requiring two-person train crews and installing electronically controlled pneumatic brakes on high-hazard freight trains. 

Senators clamor for action

As the rail industry is under pressure from federal agencies to address safety, it’s also receiving scrutiny from a number of U.S. senators.

For starters, five senators of diverse political affiliations are co-sponsoring a bill that calls for establishing requirements for wayside defect detectors, compelling railroads to notify state emergency responders when trains carrying hazardous materials are passing through their states, increasing penalties for violating rail safety regulations and mandating train crews of at least two or more workers, among other items. 

Sponsoring the Railway Safety Act of 2023 are Sens. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio; Sherrod Brown, R-Ohio; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Josh Hawley, R-Mo., Bob Casey, D-Pa.; and John Fetterman, D-Pa. Several of these senators have also criticized NS and the federal government’s response in recent weeks over the derailment.

According to a Wednesday news release, the bill calls for the following, in addition to the items listed above:

  • Create new safety requirements and procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials and train operations, including regulations pertaining to DOT-111 tank cars,  the operation of wayside detectors and the frequency of rail car inspections.
  • Craft new requirements to prevent blocked crossings.
  • Establish rules for train size and weight.
  • Provide hazmat training grants to local law enforcement and first responders, with the registration fees paid by the Class I railroads.
  • Give $22 million to FRA for research and development grants regarding wayside detectors and other rail priorities, as well as $5 million to PHMSA for expenses related to developing strong tank car safety features. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works has asked NS President and CEO Alan Shaw to testify at a Senate hearing next week on the environmental and public health impacts of the train derailment. 

Others called to attend the hearing include Brown, Vance and Casey, as well as local and state officials and representatives from the regional and state Environmental Protection Agency. 

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Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.