Given a second chance to act, New York Governor Kathy Hochul has chosen to side with safety.

In late 2022, a bill requiring two-person crews on freight trains in the state reached her desk — and she vetoed it.

But something changed in 2023. Perhaps it was seeing legislatures and governors in both Ohio and Minnesota take the steps to pass legislation, or the catastrophic derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that happened last February.

Either way, Hochul made the right decision on December 8, 2023, when she signed S.5775 into law: capping a superlative effort from SMARTTD’s New York State Legislative Board led by State Legislative Director Sam Nasca.

A mere three years ago, a bill establishing a minimum freight crew size did not even make it out of a state Senate committee. Now, New York is the third state in 2023 to pass two-person crew legislation, bringing the total number of states to have implemented legislation or regulations regarding a minimum two-person crew to 12.

“Another state has come to the conclusion that a two-person crew is appropriate and necessary for safe railroad operations,” SMART-TD National Legislative Director Greg Hynes said. “We thank all of the legislators, especially state Senator Timothy Kennedy, who introduced the bill in his chamber, and Assemblyman Bill Magnarelli for their leadership.

“Congratulations to all on the TD New York State Legislative Board for pulling together and achieving another victory.”

The bill was introduced in March and establishes an escalating structure of fines for violations by Class I and II rail carriers that run freight trains without two on the crew in the state. It took effect in January 2024.

The SMART Transportation Division Colorado State Legislative Board announced that a railroad safety bill it supports received a key committee endorsement on October 3 and looks likely to be considered in the state Legislature’s 2024 session.

By a 14–6 vote, the state’s Joint Transportation Legislation Review Committee approved of the measure, which limits train lengths to 8,500 feet and sets placement of trackside detectors to mirror what is proposed in the Railway Safety Act introduced after the East Palestine, Ohio, disaster in February 2023. The legislation also would prohibit carriers from blocking rail crossings for longer than 10 minutes.

According to Colorado State Legislative Director Carl Smith, the Ohio derailment was the impetus for some of the legislators to take a hard look at rail safety — and a couple of other incidents closer to home have kept the attention on the railroad.

“A military train from Fort Carson derailed right across from the El Paso County Jail, in Colorado Springs,” Smith said. “So that drew a lot of media attention, a lot of media spotlight.”

Incidents such as the Colorado Springs derailment and a second, more recent incident in Pueblo, Colorado, combined with members’ active outreach, made the commonsense efforts advocated by SMART-TD hard to ignore — even for people who had previously aligned with the carriers.

Smith said that state Rep. Ty Winter had adamantly refused to support rail safety legislation in the 2023 session and was a “no” for several months leading up to the vote in early October, but changed his mind in a statement to the review committee.

“I firmly believe the pressure that Rep. Winter received from the railroad workers that live and work in the 47th House District caused a significant change to his previous stance,” Smith said. “We will thank Rep. Winter for his support and continue to ensure that he supports rail safety legislation. The lobbyists of both railroads were visibly shocked by Winter’s statement and vote.”

A great deal of work on the legislation has been done, but there’s more ahead.

“We still have many steps to go before it gets to the governor’s desk for signature,” Smith noted.

But the committee endorsement with bipartisan support and 14 cosponsors — even before introduction before the full Legislature in 2024 — give it a leg up over legislation starting from scratch.

Smith also said that the legislation remains subject to amendment, especially at the encouragement of the railroad carriers, to soften the protections the bill advocates.

“I anticipate that happening,” he cautioned.

Smith and the Colorado State Legislative Board have already created a coalition of other unions, public safety and environmental groups to help raise awareness in the Legislature for a successful outcome that mirrors the winning two-person crew effort in the state in 2019.

“We will continue to educate legislators on railroad safety and lobby them to support the bill for the 2024 session,” Smith concluded.

On Thursday, September 21st, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial titled “A Union Railroad Job In Congress.”

In it, the Editorial Board cast aspersions on nameless, faceless railroad unions, directly stating that labor sought to capitalize on the life-altering devastation that has crippled East Palestine, Ohio in the aftermath of the Feb. 3, 2023, Norfolk Southern derailment. To the board’s credit, it was refreshing that there were no thinly veiled inferences. They were quite direct in stating their feeling that our nation’s rail unions are unapologetic opportunists looking to pad their own stats and satiate their members, rather than serve as truthful stewards, defending the industry’s labor and safety standards as we have since the 1850s.

To be equally direct: the commentary presented in the editorial is patently false and intentionally misleading.

First and foremost, the commentary of this board smacks of industry propaganda from the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the lobbying arm of the largest railroad companies. AAR CEO Ian Jefferies has been on a public relations tour of all available media outlets since the derailment in February. While the glow of the tanker car fire was still burning in East Palestine, industry leaders began their damage control. It has been surprisingly unsuccessful because national media outlets, like The Wall Street Journal, have been covering the fallout in East Palestine and its implications on the future of railroad safety.

Public interest has been renewed by each derailment around the nation since February. The interest of outlets big and small in covering railroad derailments has shed light on how prevalent they are. Many statistics have been thrown around in news stories, but the number most cited by the rail industry is that there are 1,700 derailments annually. Averaging over 4.5 derailments a day nationwide has made it difficult for the rail companies and the AAR to change the topic like they have in the past. It appears the NS derailment in early February was the proverbial genie and it’s proven difficult to shove it back into the bottle.

In lieu of downplaying the validity of the message that rail safety in the nation could be improved, it seems that the industry has changed course and is now opting to undercut the validity of the messengers. Historically, it is difficult for even a monopolistic behemoth like the railroads to win a fight with the Fourth Estate as it covers derailments and railroad safety as a public service, showing indeed that it can happen here. Obviously, they have made the calculation that scapegoating the unions representing our country’s railroad workers is easier.

The International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers’ Transportation Division (SMART-TD), the nation’s largest union in the railroad industry, welcomes this discussion.  

When operating vehicles that weigh 40 million pounds and stretch in excess of four miles, there is no way to “overemphasize” safety. To imply otherwise is indicative of a desire to downplay the widespread, shared consequences of rail safety in general. When operating the largest land vehicles on the planet that need every bit of a mile to come to a stop before hitting a vehicle stuck on a crossing, we cannot afford to discard any method to improve safety standards and bring about the necessary changes to decrease the accepted norm of 1,700 derailments each year.

From the outset, a disconnect is evident between the WSJ editorial board with the reality of rail workers as well as those who live in the communities that the railroads roll through. A WSJ editorial published on Sunday, April 16th states that, “Rail disasters are mercifully rare.”

Though very few reach the level of devastation of East Palestine and its subsequent chemical fire, the fact is that there is nothing “mercifully rare” about rail incidents in this country. They are more than a daily occurrence and any instance of one or more SMART-TD members being at risk of losing life, limb, or livelihood is unacceptable. To downplay these facts is irresponsible and disingenuous.

Unfortunately, both WSJ editorials were too riddled with insults to both the hard-working men and women who haul this nation’s freight as well as the dedicated public servants who wrote the Rail Safety Act of 2023, to address each individually.

SMART-TD would be remiss if we didn’t address the overarching insult that was meant to be the stinging conclusion. “Sens. Brown and Vance are using railway safety as an excuse for a union payoff.”

This insinuation of a quid pro quo indicates a level of desperation on the part of the AAR and its member railroads and all the opponents of the Railway Safety Act of 2023.

Sen. Brown has been in Congress for over two decades. His commitment to the safety of the people of Ohio and of workers is beyond reproach. As far as freshman Senator J.D. Vance goes, SMART-TD not only did not endorse the Senator in his 2022 campaign, we endorsed and actively supported his opponent, Congressman Tim Ryan. J.D. Vance has zero reason to “use railway safety as an excuse for a union payoff.” The only dog Vance has in this fight is the safety of Ohioans/Americans. Isn’t that the side we are all supposed to be on?

SMART members positioned for unprecedented opportunity

The time is now for our union. Across all the industries and crafts represented in our union — HVAC installation, railroading, indoor air quality, transit operation, architectural sheet metal, production, sign work, bus operation and beyond — SMART members are positioned for generational growth. Now, we need to seize these opportunities.

Political advocacy pays off for sheet metal workers

Unprecedented investment in the sheet metal industry — much of it due to strong labor standards and incentives included in federal legislation in the U.S. — paired with ongoing core work is creating incredibly high demand. SMART local unions now have the chance to organize and recruit aggressively to meet workforce needs.

SMART Transportation Division on offense

SMART-TD members are on offense against the railroads and their Wall Street-driven Precision Scheduled Railroading scheme for the first time in recent memory. We have seen victories and progress on two-person crew and rail safety legislation in Kansas, Minnesota, Ohio and other states across the country, and we need to keep pushing. More on page 28.

The same goes for the safety and working conditions of our brothers and sisters operating on public transit systems. We have seen far too many shocking, brazen attacks on our members while they are simply doing their jobs, safely transporting passengers from point A to point B. Policymakers and community members alike need to hear our voices and know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this cannot stand.

Organize today, win tomorrow

It is a new day for organized labor. Workers are organizing like they haven’t in generations, and 71% of Americans approve of unions: the highest percentage since the 1960s. And yet, the percentage of unionized workers remains too low, and we have seen the consequences in Maryland, Washington, Colorado and beyond. It’s time to strike while the iron is hot.

Under ordinary circumstances, SMART-TD’s National Legislative Department relies on National Legislative Director (NLD) Greg Hynes, Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity and Legislative Department Chief of Staff Jenny Miller to educate our nation’s lawmakers on rail safety. But on this year’s “Railroad Day on the Hill” — held annually on the legislative calendar — 35 men and women representing 15 different states answered the call, traveling to Washington, DC to advocate for railroaders.

This formidable group of SMART-TD representatives conducted more than 100 meetings with legislators: sharing the gospel of the Railway Safety Act of 2023, shorter trains, increased quality of life and better safety inspections of rolling stock with any Congress member or staffer willing to listen.

In addition to holding this important series of meetings and reaching out to over 100 members of the House and Senate, SMART-TD representatives attended a press conference in support of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as he announced the introduction of the Healthy Families Act. This legislation includes provisions ensuring that every company with over 100 employees provides a minimum of 7 paid sick days to its employees. This bill has language in it that speaks directly to railroad companies.

The Healthy Families Act indicates the progress our union made in the 2022 national contract negotiations. In December 2022, Sanders pushed for similar legislation that was strictly aimed at railroaders — and though it won a majority of votes in both the House and Senate, it failed to get the 60 votes needed to carry a filibuster-proof supermajority and make it to President Biden’s desk to be signed into law.

With the ramifications of this bill’s success weighing heavily on the quality-of-life improvements that SMART-TD continues to seek for our members, Sen. Sanders reached out to SMART’s Legislative Department and made a point of inviting our representatives to his press conference.

Following the successes of the day’s events, NLD Hynes expressed his gratitude to the army of SMART-TD leaders who made the trip.

“These men and women went above and beyond the call of duty to be here today, and because of them, we had a fantastic show of force in the halls of Congress. The validity of our issues speaks for itself, but when leaders from these different states show up to meet with their congressional and senate delegations, it makes an impact on these lawmakers,” he said. “They hear from Jared Cassity and me all the time, but when someone from home comes to meet with them in DC, it puts a face to our issues in a unique way.

“I want to thank each and every one of them for making the effort to come out this year, and with your help, we will deliver on the promise of the Railway Safety Act, the REEF Act, and all the issues that speak to the quality of life our members deserve and the dignity of the work they do each day.”

At the scene of a derailment, there is no substitute for the knowledge and experience of conductors as well as firefighters. In our current national climate, government and media attention are on the topic of derailments and the emergency response to them.

SMART Transportation Division needs to hear from our members who have a background in both.

Many of our members are either currently volunteer firefighters or came to the railroad from a professional firefighter background. Having been trained in both crafts and having field experience in both makes these men and women uniquely qualified to be part of this national discussion.

SMART-TD wants to provide you the bullhorn to let your voices be heard in the halls of the United States Congress as well as in the board rooms of the nation’s rail carriers.

The SMART-TD National Legislative Department is preparing a short survey to help us identify our brothers and sisters with the necessary experience in firefighting to lend their expertise to this important conversation. Please keep an eye on your email inbox and respond to this survey that will be coming out in the coming days. Our union is the largest freight rail employee union in the country, and we are in a natural position of leadership when it comes to rail policy.

Our strength comes from our members, and right now is a prime example. We need our brothers and sisters to help us lead the policy-making process that will define safety standards for all of us for generations to come.

Please consider answering the survey questions when you see them in your inbox and be the difference now that safeguards your coworkers in the future.

The RSA, which was born from the East Palestine derailment and contains two-person crew language, cleared its first major hurdle today when it passed through the Senate’s Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. The bill’s passage through committee was not without controversy and fireworks, with a debate between two Republican Senators during a discussion of amendments. However, at the end of the meeting, the RSA was passed and now moves on to the Senate.  

As a rule, freshman legislators on every level are expected to spend their first year, if not their first term, being seen and not heard. There is a tremendous learning curve, and most are happy to take in all of the information and calibrate themselves before becoming vocal, especially when taking on the standard bearers of their own political parties.  

Unlike most other Senators, JD Vance (R-Ohio) had the luxury of a learning curve taken away from him by the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Like a first-round draft-pick quarterback who has to put down the clipboard and step into the game before planned, Vance was thrown into the middle of the action.  

Today – May 10, 2023 – Vance helped usher the Rail Safety Act of 2023 to a bipartisan 16-11 win in the Senate’s Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.  

Vance’s opening statement in support of the bill came directly on the heels of longtime Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) pulling his support for the Vance/Brown Bill. In the face of this adversity, Vance came out swinging. Among other holes he poked in Cruz’s argument against the bill, he said: “We cannot on the one hand acknowledge that Ohio taxpayers and Ohio citizens are bearing the cost of this accident and on the other hand say that it’s ridiculous to require the railroad industry to do a little bit more on safety. They should be incurring some additional costs so that another East Palestine doesn’t happen again.” 

In a direct response to Cruz’s damnation of his bill as being too costly for railroads to be expected to pay for, Vance added: “Yes, it may make rail transportation a little bit more expensive. But it’s going to make rail transportation a little more expensive in the service of safety. Because let’s be honest. We have allowed the rail industry to socialize the risk of their business while privatizing the rewards. The people of East Palestine are going to deal with the cost of what Norfolk Southern did for the next generation.” 

When the hearing was opened for Senators to offer amendments to the bill, another institution of the Senate and Vance’s Republican party, John Thune (R-South Dakota), offered an amendment he claimed would alleviate the burden of Class II and Class III railroads. In his remarks, he more than suggested that other legislators aren’t in touch with rural/agricultural economies. In the face of the Thune amendment, Vance responded, “There are a number of agricultural communities small and big in the state of Ohio and a lot in East Palestine. They bear the cost when railways set off chemical bombs in their community – which is exactly what happened a couple of months ago. Those costs have been socialized onto Ohio and American taxpayers.” 

Following Vance’s comments, the Thune amendment was defeated. Shortly after that success, Vance and the Railway Safety Act of 2023 scored a huge win for rail labor with a 16-11 passage of the bill (without the rejected amendments proposed by Cruz and Thune). For his part in the day’s proceedings, the newcomer received accolades not often heard in the halls of the United States Senate.  

Senator Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.) thanked Vance for his leadership and said that he was happy to lend his support to the legislation. Both Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) made a point to highlight Vance’s acumen. Chair Cantwell said of Vance that, “I have to say, sir, you’ve come to the Senate and you’ve hit the ground running. And I appreciate that because you are responding to a crisis that happened in your state and you’re responding on behalf of your citizens so that this doesn’t happen again.” 

It goes without saying that SMART Transportation Division is encouraged by the bipartisan effort it took to get the Rail Safety Act of 2023 through the Senate committee, and we hope the sentiment continues as the bill now proceeds to the Senate floor and then onto the House.  

Rail safety is not for sale. America’s rail workers need legislation to reverse the harmful trajectory of the industry and to protect the communities in which they operate. We thank Senators Vance and Schmitt for their support, as well as every Democratic Senator on the Senate Commerce Committee for fighting to protect our members. 

SMART released the latest episode of SMART News on Tuesday, May 2. Episode eight features videos on organized labor’s success repealing so-called right-to-work in Michigan; SMART Heroes reaching the 500th graduate milestone; victories against wage theft in Virginia and Washington; SMART-TD’s rail safety efforts in the U.S. Senate; SMART members’ retirement security; and much more.

Watch individual videos from this episode:

SMART Local 80 Business Manager Tim Mulligan detailed the “travesty” of Michigan Republicans passing right-to-work legislation and taking prevailing wage away from union members in the Wolverine State; he also explained how organized labor worked with pro-worker elected officials to restore full collective bargaining power and prevailing wage in March of this year.

“Local 80, 7, 292 and actually our Transportation Division, we came together as one to get rid of right-to-work,” Mulligan told SMART News. “The repeal of right-to-work and the reinstatement of prevailing wage is so important for Michigan as a state.”

Later in the episode, International Training Institute Administrator Michael Harris and SMART Heroes graduates Kevin Moore and Sean Thompson spoke about the impact that SMART Heroes has had on their lives – as well as the other 500 military servicemembers and recent veterans the program has graduated over the last five years.

“I was honestly a little bit shocked at the level of camaraderie and brotherhood [in the union], that mimicked what I had in the [service],” said U.S. Army veteran Moore.

In other segments, SMART locals detailed recent victories on behalf of workers harmed by wage theft and worker misclassification; SMART-TD Ohio State Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker testified for rail safety in front of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee; Local 24 members highlighted enormous megaprojects and job opportunities in central Ohio; and members in Maryland and Canada talked about their work serving their neighbors during the SMART Army’s month of community action in April.

Finally, SMART General President Joseph Sellers reflected on the progress our union has made on pension strength and security, progressing from the red zone, to the yellow zone, and finally to the green zone in January of last year.

“I wasn’t quite sure that I, during my working career, would have the opportunity to see a green zone National Pension Fund,” Sellers said in his interview with SMART News. “That was a really good process for us.”

Watch all episode eight segments here.

Rail safety laws are under increasing scrutiny with each new derailment. Here, firefighters look on as flames burst from a derailed train in Raymond, Minn.
Firefighters on the scene of the fiery derailment in Raymond, Minnesota.

Media outlets and elected officials continue to spotlight rail safety in the wake of derailments in East Palestine, Ohio, Raymond, Minn. and states across the country. That makes it even more crucial for SMART members, families and allies to get involved in the fight for rail safety laws, SMART-TD Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity told SMART News.

“The best way for members to get involved is to use the Action Center on our website – you go on there and you can write your representatives and let them know what your concerns are,” Cassity said. “We need everyone on board here; it’s going to take actual peer pressure and constituent pressure on our elected officials to get stuff moving and get things done.”

Watch Cassity discuss ongoing efforts to pass rail safety laws on SMART News.

The Norfolk Southern disaster showed the nation what SMART-TD members have been saying for years: precision scheduled railroading (PSR) is bad for workers, communities and the environment. Now, the heightened scrutiny has presented an opportunity for rail labor to push for new safety regulation. At the federal level, that has taken the form of the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023, legislation that includes a nationwide mandate for well-trained two-person crews on all freight trains; restrictions on train length and weight; regulations on the installation, frequency, upkeep and response to wayside defect detectors; speed restrictions; drastically increased fines for rail companies and management employees who do not adhere to rail safety protocols; and much more.

“Unfortunately, precision scheduled railroading has taken a toll, and the railroads can no longer hide behind what they’ve done to railroading. The dangers are out there for all to see, and East Palestine is proof of that,” Cassity said during his SMART News appearance. “This piece of legislation speaks to stuff that we need desperately to improve rail safety, like crew size issues, train length issues, train makeup issues, defect detector issues. It puts in place legislation that we need to start seeing the changes to put an end to PSR.”

SMART-TD officers have been lobbying U.S. Senators to support the Railway Safety Act since its introduction, with Ohio State Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker recently appearing with Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown to promote the act. And that’s not all: Across the country, SMART-TD local unions have lobbied for state-level rail safety laws, forming a comprehensive effort to bring change to the industry. In Ohio, that recently culminated in the passage of two-person crew legislation.

“State Legislative Boards and State Legislative Directors are actively pursuing legislation in their states that are on the same level or in the same vein of what we’re doing federally,” Cassity said. “So our members need to reach out and contact their state directors to see what they can do to help … so [politicians] can see the support and feel the need, the desperate need that we have from our workforce to keep each other safe.”

Members looking to get involved in the fight for rail safety can text “Rail Safety” to 67336 (message and data rates may apply).


Freight rail safety in the news

Freight rail safety was the focus of the March 2023 episode of the Talking SMART podcast. SMART-TD Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity and SMART-TD Government Affairs Rep. Daniel Banks joined the podcast to discuss the fight to improve freight rail safety at both the state and federal levels in the weeks following the disaster in East Palestine, Ohio. 

The East Palestine derailment and other well-publicized accidents since have made clear what SMART-TD and rail labor have been saying for years: So-called “Precision Scheduled Railroading” is bad for workers, the public and the environment.

“It speaks to the seriousness of the devastation that has been done to the railroad industry since the implementation of Precision Scheduled Railroading, and it speaks to the fact that our predictions are now coming into fruition. And it’s both a shame and a frustration, and – to be quite frank – a very anger-filled reaction for us,” Cassity said. “It’s shocking to see all these derailments take place. … All of these things can be brought back to Precision Scheduled Railroading and what it’s done.”

“We need to act in solidarity” on freight rail safety

Both Cassity and Banks emphasized the importance of pushing for freight rail safety regulation across the country. Federal legislation like the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023 has already been introduced, along with bills in states across the country. Now, both guests said, SMART members, families and allies need to get involved and make sure the railroads and elected officials feel the pressure.

“We need the action. Today’s the day, and we need to capture the momentum – we need to act in solidarity,” Banks said, adding that members can get involved by texting “Rail Safety” to 67336 (message and data rates may apply).

“When it comes to combatting the railroads, what we need is membership engagement, membership interest, membership participation,” Cassity explained. “We need the members to win this fight … we have got to have the membership speaking, because they’re the constituents, they’re the influencers. The union is the voice of many, but we need the many voices to be speaking as one.”

At the end of this episode, SMART General President Joseph Sellers discussed what SMART is doing to recruit nonunion sheet metal workers and meet the workforce needs presented by megaprojects, infrastructure investment and more. Listen to the full episode here, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Return to Talking SMART index page.


Talking SMART is a member of the Labor Radio Podcast Network — working people’s voices, broadcasting worldwide 24 hours a day.


Freight rail safety in the news