Railroads Delay Participation in Federal Safety Program Despite Commitment
In the aftermath of a toxic chemical-laden freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, in February, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg succeeded in securing a commitment from the nation’s largest freight railroads to participate in a federal safety program. This program allows employees to confidentially report safety issues. However, five months later, none of the railroads have formally joined the program, citing concerns about its flaws and the need for an overhaul.
A Potential Setback for Rail Safety
The railroads’ hesitation raises doubts about the implementation of an essential step to improve rail safety, as emphasized by Buttigieg after the East Palestine derailment. It also highlights the challenges faced by federal officials and lawmakers as they advocate for safety changes against the wishes of the freight rail industry. The fate of a bipartisan rail safety bill in Congress remains uncertain.
“Too often, after a major rail incident, an immediate public call for better safety practices has eventually given way to industry pushback and inaction,” said Buttigieg. “That must not happen this time.”
Industry Resistance and Struggles
Securing the commitment from an industry known for flexing its lobbying muscle and opposing burdensome regulations was a significant feat for Buttigieg. However, as the public spotlight on the railroads diminishes, the companies are seeking changes to the program that could weaken its effectiveness.
The program, called the Confidential Close Call Reporting System, started as a pilot in 2007 and relies on NASA as an independent third party to process submissions. Currently, only 27 out of approximately 800 railroads participate in the program, with Amtrak being the only major freight railroad involved.
Railroads’ Concerns and Potential Solutions
In response to Buttigieg’s request for participation, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) expressed willingness to join but raised concerns about the federal program’s shortcomings. These concerns included insufficient detail in reports, delays in providing information to railroads, and issues related to employee discipline. The AAR argues that the railroads’ existing internal reporting programs are more effective.
While discussions have been ongoing between the AAR, railroads, and the Federal Railroad Administration, no consensus on the terms of participation has been reached. The railroads aim to retain the ability to discipline employees who report safety violations, while workers argue for anonymity to ensure program utilization.
The Federal Railroad Administration emphasizes the program’s importance for safety and continues to engage in discussions with each Class I railroad to secure their participation. Norfolk Southern, the operator responsible for the East Palestine derailment, expects to finalize its membership in the program after further discussions this month.
Efficacy of the Program Requires Nonpunitive Approach
Rail safety advocates stress that a nonpunitive approach is crucial for the program’s effectiveness. Punishment and discipline should not be the sole tools for promoting a safer rail system.