A CSX locomotive operated by a two-person crew powers a train with a mix of freight and tanker cars.

New rail safety rules mandate two-person crews for freight trains traveling in Ohio and require wayside defect detectors be installed 10-15 miles apart.

In 1993, newly elected President Bill Clinton was taking the reins from George H.W. Bush. “Home Improvement,” “Murphy Brown,” and “Murder, She Wrote” were winning the ratings war in American broadcast television (streaming hadn’t been invented yet), and the state of Ohio had passed its most-recent rail safety legislation.

The worlds of politics, entertainment, and railroading have changed dramatically in the 30 years since. On Ohio’s transportation front, freight carrier Conrail has been split among Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation, trains have tripled in length/tonnage, and technology has revamped every conceivable aspect of the industry, yet the Ohio legislative body has seen zero reason to adapt with the times … until today.

On March 31, Gov. Mike DeWine signed into law House Bill 23 (H.B. 23), which is the state’s transportation budget. This budget included in it two items known as the Ohio Rail Safety Bill with a two-person crew minimum for all freight trains traveling inside Ohio, as well as verbiage that regulates the use of wayside-defect detector technology in the Buckeye State.

WATCH: SMART-TD Ohio State Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker testified about rail safety issues before a U.S. Senate committee in March 2023.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the hard work and dedication of SMART Transportation Division Ohio State Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker that got these two common-sense rail-safety legislative components across the finish line. As we are all aware, the Feb. 2 Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine near the Pennsylvania border and the industry scrutiny that followed played a large role in forcing state leaders to do some overdue soul searching about safeguarding the state’s communities from the greed of the nation’s rail carriers.

“I’m glad lawmakers placed party politics aside and worked together for the greater good, as the government should. These bipartisan efforts have placed safety above the false narratives of the railroads,” Whitaker said. “Safety of our members in the locomotive cab is now intact, and the public will be much safer going forward. Though a major victory, we do have a lot more to accomplish in Ohio.”

That being said, this legislative victory didn’t occur solely because of what happened in East Palestine. By the time the state and national media turned their attention to Ohio’s railroads, Brother Whitaker had already done the work of preparing the legislation and had built relationships in the state’s Legislature that were required to seize the momentum created by the derailment. Whitaker had also filed complaints with the Federal Railroad Administration months prior to the derailment, citing Norfolk Southern’s tendency to override alerts from defect detectors in order to keep freight moving. The fact that he had identified the problem prior to it leading to the disaster, gave all of his information and arguments about the Ohio Rail Safety Bill additional credence.

Whitaker had also filed complaints with the Federal Railroad Administration months prior to the derailment, citing Norfolk Southern’s tendency to override alerts from defect detectors in order to keep freight moving.

Whitaker and his team knew it was the right time to bring substantive changes in Ohio laws that would help protect our members and the general public for years to come, continuing to solidify bipartisan coalitions in both the Ohio House and Senate and going toe to toe with the rail lobbyists who were sent to Columbus to do the bidding of the carriers.

But Whitaker didn’t do it alone — this accomplishment came as a result of work done both in the present and the groundwork laid by the hard work of prior State Legislative Board officers and SMART-TD members alike, who got the word out to their state legislators that the legislation was necessary.

“I believe in giving credit, where credit is due,” Whitaker said. “Stu Gardner, our former director who is now retired, helped lay the groundwork in this battle, and I’m thankful he had faith in me to finish leading the charge.”

In the end, SLD Whitaker, SMART-TD, railroad workers, railroad families and common sense came out with a hard-fought victory. 

On behalf of our members, and the members of every community the railroads roll through each day, SMART- TD would like to thank Gov. DeWine for his leadership on rail safety issues not only in Ohio but also on a national stage.

We would also like to thank the Ohio legislators and their staffs for their diligence and hard work on getting the legislation to the governor’s desk. SMART-TD is proud of the unbelievable work and professionalism we have seen from SLD Whitaker and the State Legislative Board as they shepherded the legislation through the legislative process, and most of all we want to thank all the conductors and SMART engineers who grind every day to move Ohio’s freight and protect its people by ensuring safe and effective rail operation.

Freight rail safety in the news

In the aftermath of February’s rail disaster in Ohio, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee held a key hearing March 22 on “Improving Rail Safety in Response to the East Palestine Derailment” to get to the bottom of what went wrong in the accident and to discuss the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023.  

SMART Transportation Division Ohio State Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker answers a question March 22 in the rail safety hearing before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee in Washington, D.C.

The committee had an all-star cast of witnesses who testified, including: two U.S. senators; Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine; East Palestine resident Misti Allison, who represented the community; National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy; David Comstock, chief of the Ohio Western Reserve Joint Fire District; Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw; Association of American Railroads (AAR) CEO Ian Jeffries, and SMART-TD’s Ohio State Legislative Director (SLD) Clyde Whitaker. To begin the hearing, U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown and JD Vance kicked off the day explaining in detail the bill, S.B. 567, they’re putting forward.  

Brown began his comments by thanking the witnesses for testifying and referred directly to SLD Whitaker, calling him “an unrelenting advocate for safe working conditions for his members and all people working in Ohio railroads.”  

Brown then went on to discuss why this legislation is so necessary.

“Norfolk Southern followed the Wall Street business model,” he said. “Boost profits and stock price by eliminating, over the last decade, 38% of its workforce.”

He went on to describe Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) perfectly, saying, “They cut cost to boost profits. The communities along their route be damned!” 

Vance followed Brown, and in a tone very similar to the testimony he gave March 9 in front of the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works, laid out that the intention of the bill is not to put the government in charge of day-to-day operations of America’s railroad companies like the bill’s outspoken opponents would like the public to believe. He addressed that concern of the rail carriers who have made it known that they feel the legislation is an overreach by Congress, where he stands on that issue by stating plainly that, “You cannot on the one hand beg the government to bail you out of a labor dispute three months ago and then say that it’s ‘big government’ to have proper safety standards in the way that you conduct your railroads. It’s a ridiculous argument, and it doesn’t pass the smell test.” 

Gov. DeWine followed the Buckeye State’s senators and weighed in heavily on behalf of the residents of East Palestine. He started by describing life as it was in the village of 4,700 leading up to events of Feb. 3, 2023. He walked the committee through the Norman Rockwellian Friday night where the community was keenly focused on the high school basketball game in progress until the unthinkable happened.  

“Life stopped being normal for everyone in this community — it stopped feeling safe — when 38 cars of that Norfolk Southern freight train, carrying hundreds of thousands of pounds of hazardous materials, hurtled off the track. In an instant, life turned upside down,” he said. 

DeWine went on to describe the tough questions facing residents of East Palestine revolving around their physical health as well as the viability of their community’s future.  

These points were driven home by witness Misti Allison. Allison, a resident of East Palestine for the last four years, was testifying in front of the Senate committee on behalf of her community. In her own words, her goal was “to put a face on this chemical disaster.”  

In addition to emphasizing DeWine’s points in reference to the health concerns swirling around in East Palestine, she shared other details about a community shattered. Among the issues she brought to the committee’s attention were home equity of the residents, the viability of local businesses and the concerning contradictions in the results of various sources of environmental testing of air, water and soil samples.

The most-telling and unique issue she brought to light was the still-developing mental and emotional health concerns of the community post-derailment. She pointed out the ramifications the derailment has had especially among the youth of East Palestine in her written testimony: “Kids are not allowed to play on the playground because it hasn’t been cleaned. So the kids now play a game they invented called ‘EVACUATION’ during recess. This train derailment has robbed our kids of their childhood, and perhaps more.” she said. 

This imagery is powerful and takes the importance of the Railway Safety Act of 2023 out of the realm of financial ramifications and puts it squarely in the arena of human rights.  

SMART-TD Ohio State Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker’s testimony before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee.

At the conclusion of Allison’s testimony, it was time for Brother Whitaker to take the rather large stage and speak our union’s truth directly to power. SLD Whitaker explained in detail the effects PSR have had on our industry from the ground level.  

In July 2022, Whitaker filed a complaint with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) directly reporting that NS had been ordering their crews to disregard warnings from wayside defect detectors in his state and to keep their trains rolling after receiving alerts of hot bearings.  

He informed the senators that he had personally cautioned the FRA months prior to the East Palestine derailment that carriers’ business practice and adherence to the PSR doctrine was putting our crews and communities in harm’s way.  

“PSR has made the Class I railroads more than $160 billion in profit since 2015 while at the same time causing the greatest degradation of safety in modern day railroading,” he said in his written testimony. “As we have all seen in East Palestine, this cut-your-way-to-profit model is not sustainable and it is very, very dangerous.” 

He further emphasized the impact of PSR on safety by talking about the current state of safety inspections of rolling stock and maintenance of equipment.  

“No longer is identifying defects the goal of inspections. Instead, the goal is to minimize the time it takes to perform them or the elimination of them altogether, so the trains keep moving,” he said. “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.” 

A member of the audience donned a hazmat suit while attending the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing on railway safety March 22 in reference to the contamination that occurred in East Palestine, Ohio, after a Feb. 3 derailment.
A member of the audience donned a hazmat suit while attending the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing on railway safety March 22 in reference to the contamination that occurred in East Palestine, Ohio, after a Feb. 3 derailment.

Following Brother Whitaker was not an easy task for CEO Alan Shaw of Norfolk Southern. He was noticeably uncomfortable, and his opening statement was predictably a rehashing of the same talking points he has used since the spotlight turned to him and his company in early February.  

When CEO Shaw and Ian Jefferies, president of the Association of American Railroads, completed their revisitation of industry jargon, the hearing was not over.  

Each senator was given the opportunity to ask questions of the panel. Senators of both parties took turns flogging Shaw and Jefferies about the holes in the logic behind their arguments and pointing out the contradictions between their claims and what Whitaker (a certified conductor and engineer) was telling them his firsthand reality is.  

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), ranking minority member of the committee, was clearly deferring to SLD Whitaker’s expertise, when the stories of the two rail executives weren’t mirroring reality.  

To sum up the committee hearing that took the better part of a day, it is safe to say that Sens. Brown and Vance seem to have assembled a piece of legislation that has wide support among their senate colleagues on both sides of the political spectrum.

SMART-TD would like to let Brother Whitaker know that his representation of our organization and of rail labor is a proud example of how we will continue to fight for our members and the communities they call home.  

SMART-TD, behind the leadership of National Legislative Director Greg Hynes and Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity, have unprecedented positive momentum in the halls of state legislatures across the country. Our legislative directors currently have bills in front of 17 state legislatures and many are showing signs of being successful. SMART-TD is very proud of the progress that the SLDs are making in all of these states and would like to share some of the highlights.

· Washington HB 1839 — SLD Herb Krohn’s train-length bill is scheduled for a vote in the Washington House Transportation Committee at noon Feb. 23.

· Arizona HB 2531—SLD Robert Jones has a train length bill limiting trains to 8,500 feet. It was passed through committee and is heading to the floor of the Arizona House.

· Arizona HB 2531—SLD Robert Jones has a train length bill limiting trains to 8,500 feet. It was passed through committee and is heading to the floor of the Arizona House.

· Iowa SF 184 —SLD Chris Smith has a train length bill limiting trains to 8,500 feet. It has been passed through committee in the Iowa Senate and is heading to the Senate floor.

· New Mexico HB 105—SLD Don Gallegos has a two-person crew bill that passed the floor of the New Mexico House of Representatives and is heading to the Senate.

· Minnesota SF 1417—SLD Nicholas Katich has a two-person crew bill that is currently in committee.

· Ohio HB 23—SLD Clyde Whitaker has a two-person crew bill that includes provisions for regulating adherence to wayside defect detectors that is currently in committee.

In the 17 states where SMART-TD’s legislative team is pushing legislation in this cycle, we have 49 combined bills currently in play. These pieces of legislation have the potential to bring about a tremendous amount of progress in our industry and make your day-to-day lives better while holding rail carriers accountable. Your support is needed!

SMART-TD asks that you become involved in these legislative actions. Please visit the Take Action tab of SMART’s website and look at what bills are being pushed in your state. Letters, phone calls, and emails supporting the bills involving our industry go a long way towards realizing their success. We encourage you to advocate for yourselves and your brothers and sisters in your crew base.

Ohio members are urged to express their support for H.B. 23, a rail-safety bill that covers two-person crews, requires documentation of blocked crossing incidents and requires state-supervised oversight to ensure the proper operation of wayside defect detectors.

In-person testimony before the Ohio House Finance Committee will occur 10 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21, at the Ohio Statehouse and written testimony also is encouraged to be submitted by members who cannot be there in person. The meeting will take place in Room 313.

The bill:

  • Requires a two-person crew on a train.
  • Requires that the Ohio Public Utilities Commission (PUCO) and state Department of Transportation (Ohio DOT) work with railroad companies operating in the state to ensure that wayside detector systems are operational, effective and meets current standards.
  • Demands that railroads submit incident reports to PUCO for every instance when a carrier blocks a rail crossing for a duration of more than five minutes.

To submit comments, members in the state are encouraged to fill out the witness form linked below and send it, along with their written comments on the bill via email to Ohio State Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker (smartunionoslbmedia@gmail.com).

“We have an urgent need for people in Ohio to share their testimony about why H.B. 23 is necessary,” Whitaker said. “With the increased attention to rail safety, the time is now to get this legislation passed.”

Download the witness form. (Fillable PDF)

Read the bill.

Watch on-the-ground reporting from East Palestine, Ohio from SMART News.

Prior to the lifting of an evacuation order for residents of East Palestine, Ohio, SMART officers and members pitched in to assist the displaced residents with supplies and other support.

Due to the massive Norfolk Southern derailment there on Friday, February 3, and the hazardous materials release, lives in the community were turned upside down with many having to relocate temporarily in community shelters.

SMART-TD Ohio State Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker delivers supplies to a shelter for residents displaced by the East Palestine, Ohio, derailment on Feb. 8.

SMART-TD Ohio State Legislative Director (SLD) Clyde Whitaker, along with representatives of SMART International went to one of the shelters to bring supplies and lend support. SLD Whitaker and the other members of SMART listened to the concerns of the residents at the Family Assistance Center that was set up at Abundant Life Fellowship Church in New Waterford, OH.

The scene at the shelter was not a memory that Whitaker will forget anytime soon. Concerns were voiced that ranged from the immediate needs of food, shelter and clothing to the long-term environmental condition of the soil, air, and water in the town. Much of the discussion focused on how the future would look in this proud community, and what kind of remediation effort they could expect to see from the carrier.

“This really hit home to a lot of us. It’s the biggest catastrophe that I’ve seen in my 23 years of railroading here in Ohio,” Whitaker said.

Some of the most heated discussions revolved around air quality concerns. The large-scale chemical fire that was the result of Friday’s derailment and Tuesday’s “controlled release” of chemicals by NS created more than just the pictures that have been circulated through both local and national news media. It also created serious health concerns. Though the residents have been assured throughout this process that testing continues to show that the air is safe to breathe, many of the people at the shelter Wednesday remained skeptical.

Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, talk while sheltering at Abundant Life Fellowship Church on Wednesday, Feb. 8.

One of the East Palestinians SMART talked with was a mother who asked to be identified only as Britt. She is deeply concerned because of her daughter’s asthma. Britt gave details about her daughter’s condition having been well controlled, and that she had not had an episode in some time until the derailment. When Britt and her family attempted to evacuate, her daughter had an immediate flare up of her condition with the very limited exposure of walking from the family’s front door to their car in the driveway.

Stories like Britt’s as well as multiple accounts of fish and animals being affected by the current conditions have the community worried about the immune compromised as well as the long-term effects for their community as a whole.

SMART-TD Ohio State Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker gives a hat to a resident displaced by the East Palestine, Ohio, derailment on Feb. 8.

NS, the NTSB and a few local churches also helped by establishing shelters for the displaced families.

SMART-TD would like to thank SLD Whitaker and his team for their commitment to community outreach, and we will continue to keep Britt’s family and all of East Palestine in mind as we advocate for safety measures throughout the rail industry.