By Drue Pearce

A year has now passed since a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. While the accident prompted increased scrutiny and calls for accountability, it also brought to light the strides that have been made in prioritizing safety across the sector.

Our American economy depends on moving goods across the country quickly, efficiently and safely. Government and industry have a responsibility to work cooperatively and in collaboration to make safety their highest priority. During my time as deputy administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), I saw firsthand how a culture of safety drives every decision.

While increasing safety should always be an ongoing goal, much of the reaction to the East Palestine derailment was driven by political grandstanding. It is natural for politicians to respond to an accident by wanting to “do something,” but the response must be focused on things that will actually increase rail safety.

Industry, to its credit, isn’t waiting around for Congress or federal regulators. They are continuing to invest in new technology and training for workers and first responders to prevent a repeat of what happened in East Palestine last year.

As I noted in a piece I wrote last May, no matter how much we prioritize safety, accidents happen. My expansive elected experience in Alaska and my administrative experience at both the Department of the Interior and at PHMSA taught me that we need to continuously learn from events and use that information to consistently improve safety practices.

The National Transportation Safety Board thoroughly investigated the accident in East Palestine, and a report is forthcoming. It will contain recommendations that will be closely considered by both the Federal Railroad Administration and PHMSA.

A rail safety bill introduced last year has yet to be debated by the full Senate. House Transportation Committee leadership plans to wait for the NTSB recommendations before crafting legislation. The FRA and PHMSA are both at the early stages of regulatory rulemaking.  

Unfortunately, governing by reaction often leads to overstepping and “Christmas tree”-type legislation, carrying mandates that are not directly related to either the incident or to safety. Both the legislation enacted by the Ohio Legislature last year and the bill introduced in the U.S. Senate include provisions that would not have impacted the East Palestine accident, nor do they demonstrably increase the safety of hazardous material transportation. And state-by-state requirements are not conducive to the safe, quick and efficient transportation of hazardous cargo by any means of transportation, resulting in increased expenditures of funds that would be better spent on safety-enhancing technology.

The railroad industry, and its shippers, continue to point out that the past decade has been the safest in rail history and that rail is, without question, a safer mode of transportation for hazardous materials. 

As a result of the East Palestine incident, railroads have increased the frequency of detectors to identify bearing defects, resulting in a direct safety boost. They set a new standard to stop trains when bearing temperatures exceed a lowered limit. They have trained an increased number of first responders nationwide and are supporting those first responders with increased access to the AskRail app, which provides immediate access to accurate data about what type of hazardous materials a rail car is carrying.  

And just this week, the FRA announced that Norfolk Southern is joining a pilot program of the Confidential Close Call Reporting System, which will allow its employees to confidentially report unsafe events. This program is a proven safety enhancer.

As Congress continues its response, I continue to hope that members base their decision-making on real data as opposed to emotion or political grandstanding. They should listen to the NTSB and U.S. Department of Transportation agencies, look at the root causes, and move forward with reason. And both government and industry should adopt robust safety management programs, a proven step to enhancing safety by embracing everyone in the chain from supplier to customer, from regulator to operator, because in all things, we are only as good as our weakest link.

About the author

Drue Pearce served as deputy administrator of the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration at the U.S Department of Transportation, as a senior adviser to U.S. Department of the Interior Secretaries Gale Norton and Dirk Kempthorne, and as the federal coordinator at the Office of Federal Coordinator for Alaska Natural Gas Transportation Projects. She also served twice as the Alaska State Senate president. She is currently the director of government affairs at Holland and Hart.

The post Much has been done to improve rail safety in wake of East Palestine appeared first on FreightWaves.

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