We Need Basic Train Safety Rules
Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg:
We must restore and expand Obama-era railway safety rules now. The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio has been an environmental and health disaster. Local residents are reporting severe health issues, animals and plants are dying, and countless people are being exposed to toxic fumes with unknown long-term effects. The Obama administration proposed rules to make our railways safer, including mandating updated braking systems, and classifying more types of chemical cargoes as hazardous. The Trump administration removed even the watered-down version of these basic measures. We demand that transportation regulators push to reinstate and expand the Obama-era rules. Americans should not live in fear of more toxic derailment accidents.
This month’s freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio has been an environmental and health disaster. After a black mushroom cloud billowed toxic fumes for days, local residents are reporting severe health issues, animals and plants are dying, and countless people are being exposed to chemicals with unknown long-term effects.1
Experts say the severity of this accident could have been dramatically reduced if the government had implemented basic safety regulations. The Obama administration introduced such rules back in 2014, but the Trump White House removed them, paving the way for the Ohio disaster.2
Despite being in power for two years, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has failed to advocate for the return of these common sense safety measures.
The proposed Obama-era rule mandated that rail companies install new, safer braking technology on some trains. Many U.S. trains still use air brake technology first developed during the Civil War and are in dire need of an upgrade. Corporate lobbyists from companies like Norfolk-Southern—whose trail derailed in Ohio—succeeded in watering down these Obama-era regulations, then the Trump administration destroyed them altogether.
When asked if the newer braking technology would have mitigated the Ohio disaster, a former senior official at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) said, “Yes.”2
Railway workers have been sounding the alarm on these safety concerns for years.3 John Risch, a former railway engineer and the national legislative director for the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Union, said the new brakes are the“most remarkable advancement” he’s seen in his career, and that their installation would dramatically increase safety. Railway corporations have also been severely reducing railway staffing, and refusing to grant workers sick days and other basic workplace benefits. Forcing employees to overwork themselves while sick and understaffed both hurts workers and increases the rate of dangerous accidents.2
Despite being in charge of railway regulation, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has not made any statement on plans to increase railway safety. With the country’s eyes on the Ohio disaster, now is the time to stand up to the corporate railway lobbyists and reestablish and expand the Obama-era safety rules.
- The New Republic, “Life After the Ohio Train Derailment: Trouble Breathing, Dying Animals, and Saying Goodbye,” February 13, 2023.
- The Lever, “Rail Companies Blocked Safety Rules Before Ohio Derailment,” February 8, 2023.
- The New Republic, “Rail Workers Tried to Warn Us the Ohio Train Derailment Would Happen,” February 8, 2023.