SMART RME Director Peter Kennedy speaks on rail safety in front of a House roundtable.

SMART Rail, Mechanical and Engineering Department Director Peter Kennedy joined fellow rail workers and community witnesses to stand for rail safety during a roundtable hosted by Democratic members of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials on Wednesday, March 13.

Kennedy – along with Vince Verna of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen; Mayor Frank Moran of Hiram, Ga. (the site of a 2021 derailment); East Palestine, Ohio resident Anna Sevi-Doss and others – testified to the devastating effects of deregulation on the railroad, and the need for Congress to pass the bipartisan Railway Safety Act.

“Everybody knows the story: rail safety has deteriorated under precision scheduled railroading [PSR],” Kennedy explained in his opening statement. “It’s nothing more than a cost-cutting business operating model that is founded upon the root of all evil, which is the love of money. The sole focus is to maximize profits for shareholders.”

Watch video of the House roundtable.

The Railway Safety Act was introduced in the wake of the East Palestine derailment and explosion in February 2023 by Senators Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance of Ohio, Bob Casey and John Fetterman of Pennsylvania and by Representative Chris Deluzio in the House. However, amidst concentrated lobbying against the bill by the railroad carriers, there has been no progress made towards a full vote in either chamber.

Democratic Congressmembers Rick Larsen and Donald Payne, Jr. hosted the March 2024 roundtable – titled “Listening to Rail Workers and Communities” – to “help get rail safety legislation back on track,” according to Larsen.

“Simply put, what we are seeing today in the freight rail industry is efforts to take shortcuts on labor safety and service, all in the pursuit of profits, while we see bigger profits for the railroads – meaning more dividends for shareholders,” Payne said.

Throughout the hearing, members of Congress, citizens and union leaders all described the fraught conditions that both workers and ordinary Americans experience as a result of deregulation and corporate greed. Kennedy outlined the adverse effects on safety, as well as shippers and the industry as a whole, that occur when the carriers cut services and equipment maintenance. Even worse, he told subcommittee members, are the drastic workforce reductions in the industry.

“As Vince said, over 30% of the workforce has been eliminated. With respect to the Mechanical Department employees, 41% of the workforce has been eliminated since PSR,” Kennedy explained. “And what’s crazy is, the cuts are still happening.”

“It’s absolutely asinine,” he added. “There’s not enough workers to perform this critical safety work on locomotives and rail cars in this country. That’s what it boils down to.” 

The Railway Safety Act would implement a variety of safeguards to keep Americans and railroaders safe, including 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; and much more. SMART RME, TD and rail labor organizations throughout the country have urged lawmakers to pass these common-sense regulations in the 12-plus months since the bill’s introduction, as states including Minnesota, New York, Ohio and Kansas have themselves passed rail safety legislation.

“We need both sides of the aisle to make freight rail safety a priority,” Kennedy concluded. “We need meaningful change to the industry. We need Congress to act now, and I thank Ranking Members Larsen and Payne for hosting a roundtable discussion to discuss ongoing and unaddressed rail safety issues.”

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?

In the aftermath of February’s rail disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee held a key hearing on 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.

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 SMARTTD’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.”

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

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, explaining 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 the concern of the rail carriers who have made it known that they feel the legislation is an overreach by Congress, stating plainly: “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.

From left, National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy; David Comstock, chief of the Ohio Western Reserve Joint Fire District; SMART-TD Ohio State Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker; Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw and Association of American Railroads CEO Ian Jefferies appear March 22 before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee in a hearing regarding rail safety.
From left, National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy; David Comstock, chief of the Ohio Western Reserve Joint Fire District; SMART-TD Ohio State Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker; Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw and Association of American Railroads CEO Ian Jefferies appear March 22 before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee in a hearing regarding rail safety.

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.

At the conclusion of Allison’s testimony, Brother Whitaker took the stage to speak our union’s truth directly to power. SLD Whitaker explained in detail the effects PSR has had on our industry from the ground level.

In July 2022, Whitaker filed a complaint with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) directly reporting that Norfolk Southern 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.”

Ottawa, Ontario – To enhance railway safety and make the rail industry and crude oil shippers more accountable to Canadians, the Honorable Lisa Raitt, Minister of Transport, announced that the Safe and Accountable Rail Act has received Royal Assent.

“I am so pleased to see these important amendments come into force. Raising standards for rail safety and accountability is a great example of how the Government of Canada is protecting taxpayers and safeguarding the communities along our country’s rail corridors,” Raitt said.

This Act amends the Canada Transportation Act to strengthen the liability and compensation regime for federally regulated railways through enhanced insurance requirements and a supplemental compensation fund financed by levies on crude oil shippers. It also amends the Railway Safety Act to increase information-sharing provisions and provide stronger oversight powers for the Minister and Transport Canada inspectors.

The new liability and compensation regime under the Canada Transportation Act will be brought into force in one year. The new regime aligns with updates the Government of Canada is making to the liability and compensation regimes in other sectors of transport, including for marine tankers and oil pipelines. It is based on the “polluter pays” principle and makes railways and shippers responsible for the cost of accidents, protecting taxpayers and communities by ensuring that adequate resources are available to compensate victims and pay for environmental clean-up.

The Safe and Accountable Rail Act makes the following changes:

  • Federal railway companies must obtain and maintain legislated minimum levels of insurance, based on the type and volume of dangerous goods they carry, ranging from $25 million to $1 billion.
  • A supplementary shipper-financed fund will provide compensation to victims and pay for environmental clean-up in the event that a railway accident involving crude oil exceeds the amount of insurance held by the railway. Companies will have to pay $1.65 per tonne of crude oil they ship by rail.
  • Amendments to the Railway Safety Act broaden the powers of the Minister and inspectors to order railway companies and others to take specified measures or stop any activity in the interest of safe railway operations.