Norfolk Southern CEO backs parts of new rail safety bills
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw testifies at a hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on protecting public health and the environment in the wake of the Norfolk Southern train derailment and chemical release in East Palestine, Ohio in Washington, D.C., the United States, March 9, 2023.
Aaron Schwartz | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw on Wednesday told senators that his railroad company supports parts of two bipartisan rail safety bills that came in the wake of a derailment last month of a train carrying toxic materials in Ohio.
Testifying in front of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Shaw said the Railway Safety Act and the RAIL Act include “measures with the potential for meaningful improvement, such as funding additional training, better advanced notifications, accelerating the phase out of older tank cars, and much more.”
Shaw did not fully endorse the Railway Safety Act, which includes provisions calling for two-person crews on all railroad locomotives. “We’re not aware of any data that links crew size with safety,” Shaw said Wednesday.
The legislation was introduced by Sens. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, in the weeks following the Feb. 3 East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment, which released toxic chemicals into the surrounding area.
In prepared remarks, Shaw said he agrees in “principle” with portions of the legislation, such as “establishing performance standards, maintenance standards, and alert thresholds for safety sensors.”
“We encourage even stricter standards for tank car design,” Shaw said in prepared remarks. “There are significant opportunities for advanced technology to enhance rail safety, and we encourage Congress to consider additional research into on-board rail car defect detection technology.”
Brown, who spoke at the hearing along with Vance, suggested the problems with Norfolk Southern were broader, pointing to 579 violations during one recent fiscal year, with the company paying an average fine of $3,300.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said at the hearing that he agrees “with the changes in the law” that the bill proposes, as well as the RAIL Act proposed last week by Reps. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, and Emilia Strong Sykes, D-Ohio. DeWine, a Republican, said lawmakers added his request to include a provision requiring rail carriers to provide advance notification and information to state emergency response officials about the goods they are transporting.
Ohio sued Norfolk Southern last week, seeking damages, civil penalties and a “declaratory judgement that Norfolk Southern is responsible,” Attorney General Dave Yost said.
Shaw, who testified before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works two weeks ago, said in prepared remarks that the company will enhance its hot bearing detector network, deploy more acoustic bearing detectors, accelerate its inspection program and improve practices for detectors. Norfolk Southern has said the detectors were working as designed in East Palestine, but it is adding 200 additional hotbox detectors.
National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy said the agency supports a quicker shift away from an old standard of tank cars, as well as improved information sharing between emergency responders and railroads.
“Even one rail car of any hazardous material justifies notifying emergency responders, not 20 or more than 35 loaded tank cars, which could contain 1 million gallons of hazardous materials,” Homendy wrote in prepared remarks.
The NTSB on Monday released three preliminary reports on recent incidents, including a train derailment in Alabama on March 9, a collision with a dump truck on March 7 that killed the train conductor and a derailment on March 4 in Springfield, Ohio.
Homendy suggested expanding the definition of high-hazard flammable trains, as well as providing real-time information for responders and residents.
In his remarks, Shaw addressed the controversial practice of precision scheduled railroading, which has been criticized as a method for cost-cutting and driving a low operating ratio. Shaw said the company has taken “a more balanced approached to service, productivity, and growth” by “aggressively” hiring craft railroaders.
“No longer is identifying defects the goal of inspections but rather minimize the time it takes to perform them or the elimination of them altogether,” said Clyde Whitaker, an official at the SMART Transportation Division union. “Compound this with the fact that the railroads are on a determined course to grow these trains to astronomical lengths and you have a predictable outcome, and that outcome is East Palestine.”
From 2017 to 2021, railroads cut their workforce by 22% and reduced investment in the network by 24%, though accident rates increased by 14% over the time period, according to Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who chairs the committee that held the hearing Wednesday.