Feb 15, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Ohio derailment prompts calls to investigate federal oversight of trains

Photo of a derailed train car as a worker walks around the site

The site of the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Photo: Rebecca Kiger for The Washington Post via Getty Images

As emergency crews continue to clean up the site where a train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, several lawmakers are pushing for answers about government oversight of the freight train system.

Why it matters: The derailment and subsequent fire forced hundreds to evacuate and caused alarm about toxic fumes and water contamination from spilled materials.

  • The 150-car Norfolk Southern train was hauling at least five tanker cars containing the hazardous gas vinyl chloride.

Driving the news: GOP Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and J.D. Vance (Ohio) sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Wednesday demanding information about his department's oversight of the U.S. freight train system.

  • The letter questioned how the derailed train's three-member crew was supposed to "effectively monitor 150 cars" and accused the Biden administration of prioritizing "efficiency over resilience in its national infrastructure and transportation systems."
  • Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) also called for a congressional inquiry and "direct action" from Buttigieg earlier this week — a statement Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who sits on the Senate Commerce Committee, said he backed.
  • The train derailment will have "a significant negative impact on the health and wellbeing of the residents for decades," Omar tweeted.

Yes, but: Buttigieg responded by saying that the ability to improve rail safety and "reduce constraints" lies with Congress.

  • "Glad to see newfound bipartisan agreement here," he tweeted in reference to Cruz and Omar. "We could start by discussing immediate steps Congress could take ... Give us a call, we can do some good work."
  • Buttigieg pointed out earlier this week that his agency's ability to regulate the rail system is "constrained by law" due to the Trump administration's 2017 withdrawal of a rule that would have required the installation of electronic braking systems on some trains carrying flammable materials. Electronic breaks can stop trains more quickly than typical air brakes.
  • That move was enabled by a measure passed by Congress, which in 2015 mandated additional research and cost-benefit analyses of the technology.
  • "[W]e are using the powers we do have to keep people safe," Buttigieg said.

Worth noting: Several media outlets have reported that Norfolk Southern employees had expressed concern about the freight train's length and weight prior to its departure from Madison, Illinois.

  • The train had also broken down at least once before it derailed, some employees told CBS News.
  • Railroad worker unions had previously made it clear that employees were fed up with being overworked and that rail companies had cut down the workforce too excessively in a bid to save costs.

The big picture: The National Transportation Safety Board, supported by the Department of Transportation, is leading an investigation into the trail derailment in East Palestine.

  • A mechanical issue with an axle of one of the 150 cars is believed to be the cause of the derailment of at least 50 of the cars.
  • Norfolk Southern faces at least four class action lawsuits that allege negligence related to the crash.
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