Ohio train union members outline changes they’d like to see in the rail industry after East Palestine derailment

Published: Sep. 1, 2023 at 3:51 PM CDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - It has now been nearly seven months since the train derailment happened in East Palestine Ohio and despite bipartisan calls for federal safety reforms in the rail industry, federal legislative action has not been passed. But that is not stopping members of one of the largest rail unions from making continued calls for safety improvements.

“We’re not doing the American citizens due justice, the railroads need to button it up. They need regulated,” said Clyde Whitaker, Ohio State Legislative Director for SMART TD, one of the largest railroad unions in the country.

Whitaker said that he was not surprised by the derailment and testified about it on Capitol Hill in March.

“Our warnings and cries for help over the last seven years have fallen on deaf ears. And the outcome was exactly as we feared. Now the result is a town that doesn’t feel safe in their own Homes, businesses failing,” said Whitaker at the March 22nd hearing.

Recently, he told Gray Television, that several reforms need to be put in place to prevent another derailment from happening. Those include setting standards on placement of rail cars, shorter trains, more locomotives, more manpower and a uniform temperature threshold for defect detectors on tracks.

Ohio did pass a law requiring defect detectors every 10-15 miles but federal legislation introduced by Senators Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance has failed to get Republican leadership support.

“A lot of what the railroads are pitching is a lot of smoke and mirrors right now, but I have seen them trying to make a little bit of a difference here in Ohio. And I can only speak for Ohio, but it’s just a little small improvement when we could be doing a lot better,” he said.

Norfolk Southern said in a statement that it is committed passing bipartisan legislation on rail safety:

“Norfolk Southern remains committed to the ultimate goal of enacting bipartisan legislation that advances rail safety and strengthens the ability of rail carriers to maintain their critical role in the nation’s economy. These pieces of legislation contain important advancements in accident prevention, accident mitigation, and accident response that will make our railroads, our employees, and communities safer. We look forward to continuing our engagement with Members of Congress on the issues, achieving a meaningful and effective new law, and leading on safety measures within the industry.”

The Association of American Railroads said in a statement:

“Let’s be clear, railroads are the safest way to move freight over land – particularly hazmat. The industry’s first goal is to prevent an accident before it can happen. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave rail its highest grade in their infrastructure report card in part because of the annual $20 billion in private investments in maintaining and improving network. At its core, a well-maintained railroad is a safe one.”

The association’s CEO Ian Jefferies said during the March 22nd hearing, “I think there is a feasible path forward on almost every provision in there (Railway Safety Act). Your definition of feasible and mine may not be the same, but I think there is an opportunity to work together to try to get to yes.”

AAR also stressed in May that it urges “policymakers to continue refining the [Railway Safety Act] to ensure the bill is focused on solution-driven polices that will measurably enhance safety.”

Jefferies also said in a statement in May, “Railroads support items of this bill and remain fully committed to working with the Committee.”