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Union group pushes for passage of rail safety bill


Rail union representatives are poised to adopt a policy statement that urges Congress to pass a rail safety bill — one that mandates a minimum of two-person crew sizes on all passenger and freight trains, regulates train lengths exceeding 7,500 feet and ensures adequate inspections of rail cars, locomotives and brakes.

The latest policy statement of the Transportation Trades Department (TTD) of the AFL-CIO cites at least 18 areas where regulations and guidance via the Federal Railroad Administration can bolster existing rail safety practices. TTD expects to formally adopt the statement at its spring summit on Wednesday, when 37 unions, including all U.S. rail labor unions, are convening at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington.

“The scope and ambition of legislation from Congress must reflect the scope of the problem. Rail workers witness the effects of their employers’ total disregard for safety every single day on the job,” TTD said in the statement.

Besides addressing key union priorities on train crews, train length and inspection times, the policy statement calls for regulations for defect detection technologies that would cover testing, maintenance, repair, data tracking and crew alerts; provisions that would ensure that rail workers can call a safety stand-down when workers deem conditions as unsafe; assurances that the railroads are providing visual warning equipment to watchmen and lookouts; and plans to immediate phase out FRA-granted safety waivers to Class I railroads. The safety waivers have been a point of contention for the unions, which say the waivers have been used to pit technological tools against workers’ responsibilities.

TTD said the policy statement reflects practices that could lessen or further prevent train derailments, including those such as the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio, which involved the controlled release of vinyl chloride from punctured tank cars, causing concern among local residents about the derailment’s environmental impacts.

The policy statement comes as just last week the Senate Commerce Committee voted to bring a rail safety bill co-sponsored by Ohio’s two senators to the floor for a vote. The bill, which was authored by a bipartisan group of senators, was passed by a committee vote that fell mostly along party lines.

During a markup of the bill at the committee meeting last week, senators noted the input from rail stakeholders and the rail industry on crafting the bill.

But TTD asserts that the rail safety provisions that the freight rail industry has lobbied for in congressional rail safety legislation don’t go far enough in supporting rail safety. 

“Rail workers have sounded the alarm for years about the deteriorating safety conditions in the freight rail industry. Actions taken by the Class I freight railroads both before and after the derailment demonstrate that they still have no interest in correcting their business practices that put lives and communities at risk every single day,” TTD said. “Sadly, that is because they are driven by one thing, and one thing only: generating the most profit possible, regardless of anyone’s wellbeing but their own. It does not matter to them who gets hurt in the process.”

The group also reiterated its argument that precision scheduled railroading (PSR), an operating tool that seeks to streamline railroad operations, contributed to the railroads’ relaxing of rail safety procedures. 

“TTD has previously highlighted the harmful effects of the PSR operating model and the workforce and infrastructure cuts the railroads have made in recent years,” TTD said. “Absent federal action, rail corporations will keep choosing Wall Street over Main Street and rail safety will further deteriorate. If Congress doesn’t take action and require the railroads to change their ways, there will only be more derailments like East Palestine and more traumatized communities across the country. We cannot afford to wait any longer. Congress needs to listen to the rail workers who see the safety problems that are happening every single day. Congress must act and pass a comprehensive rail safety bill that makes meaningful safety improvements before further disasters occur.”

To help push the bill along, Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who lent her support to the bill’s passage at the committee stage, said late Tuesday that she would be holding a press conference on the Hill on Wednesday afternoon with mayors affiliated with the National League of Cities to champion the bill in the Senate. 

“With 140,000 miles of track in the U.S. crossing directly through thousands of cities, towns and villages, the severity of this derailment requires proactive reflection on rail safety actions that Congress can take now,” Cantwell said in the announcement.

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