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Senators question Norfolk Southern CEO on safety record, Ohio commitments

Alan Shaw declined to endorse all of the provisions in legislation sponsored by Ohio’s two U.S. senators

In his second appearance before U.S. senators in two weeks, Norfolk Southern’s chief executive was pressed Wednesday to move beyond the railroad’s apologies and make clear commitments to support bipartisan safety legislation after last month’s derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

Alan Shaw spoke after one of the town’s residents and the state’s governor, Mike DeWine (R), told senators about the anxiety residents feel about the future of a place they love.

“There’s a lot of confusion in the community about whether, long-term, if it’s a good choice to stay or not,” said resident Misti Allison.

But Shaw, who became chief executive nine months before the derailment, declined to endorse all the provisions in legislation sponsored by Ohio’s two senators, Sherrod Brown (D) and J.D. Vance (R) — or detail which his company opposed when pressed to do so. The legislation would increase fines for safety violations, require two-person crews in most cases, strengthen requirements and emergency plans for trains carrying hazardous materials and enhance training and communication with first responders.

The hearing Wednesday of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee put a spotlight on Norfolk Southern’s safety record, which has come under scrutiny as lawmakers and regulators seek to address public concerns about derailments and the transport of hazardous materials.

Shaw dodged two questions posed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.): Why has the railroad’s accident rate increased over the past decade? And which parts of the proposed railroad safety legislation did he not support?

“I’ll just put it in writing,” Klobuchar said when Shaw reiterated which parts of a bill he would support.

In his testimony, Shaw noted support for some provisions, including funding to train emergency responders. He said Congress could go even further in setting safety standards for tank cars, which are not typically owned by the railroads.

Shaw said he was not aware of any data backing the idea that having both an engineer and conductor aboard a train boosted safety. The industry is interested in having trains run only by an engineer, with conductors following in vehicles by road to help.

Clyde Whitaker, an official with SMART Transportation Division, a union, told Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) that the derailment “absolutely” would have been worse had there been only an engineer on the train.

“If the railroads had it their way, down to a one-person crew, and they reduced the conductor position to ground-based — meaning a person at a pickup truck driving to the site — that puts the engineer in danger,” Whitaker said. “It also puts the response time and the assessment of the issue in danger.”

Markey said technology could not replace human beings on the nation’s railroads.

“Two-person crews make our trains safer, and I wish that you would commit to that today, because I think it’s pretty obvious that that is the correct answer,” Markey said.

Ohio’s House delegation introduced similar rail legislation last week, although unlike the Senate version, it does not include a mandate that trains have two crew members.

Brown said Norfolk Southern had 579 violations in a single fiscal year and paid an average fine of less than $3,300.

“You heard that right — not $30 million. Not $3 million. Just over $3,000,” he said in opening remarks, citing the company’s history of lobbying against higher fines for safety violations.

Vance mocked “alleged” conservative groups and industry advocates for attacking the rail safety bill. Those groups have falsely tried to cast the proposed regulations as “a kind of Bolshevism” and Big Government solution, Vance said, adding that it was funny to hear that from an industry that recently begged Congress to block a rail strike.

Allison, a member of the group Moms Clean Air Force, raised concerns that harm from potential dioxin pollution, the same type of contamination that made the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, N.Y., infamous, “may not show up for years.”

The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered Norfolk Southern to test for dioxins, a type of pollutant that some experts suspect could have been created when authorities released chemicals from five derailed cars on Feb. 6. EPA officials did not respond to questions Wednesday from The Washington Post about plans for or results of that testing.

Of the dioxin testing, Allison said: “That’s really good.” But it doesn’t assuage her concerns, she added.

“I think a lot more data needs to come out,” she said. “You can make the data look however you want, and also you can test or not test for whatever you want. We just want to make sure that everything is being tested that should be tested, and we’re not really sure if that’s been done or not.”

EPA officials have told residents they haven’t detected pollutants of concern that surpass health and safety thresholds for short-term exposure. Independent researchers who have interpreted EPA data and collected their own samples emphasize that that does not mean toxins are absent, although levels would have to remain elevated for decades to raise long-term health concerns.

The derailment put a spotlight on the safety of the railroad industry, and Norfolk Southern, in particular.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said he had internal Norfolk Southern data showing that some rail cars had traveled thousands of miles beyond the limit for required brake inspections.

Shaw said he was not aware of the data. “We do not allow unsafe rail cars to operate,” the chief executive said.

In response to calls to “do the right thing,” Shaw said Norfolk Southern has taken steps to help residents pay for medical costs, address property value losses and test water over the long run.

The National Transportation Safety Board has taken the unusual step of opening a special investigation into Norfolk Southern’s safety practices, citing the East Palestine derailment and other recent incidents — including three that left railroad workers dead.

Federal Railroad Administration data provides a mixed picture of the accident rates of major freight companies, known as Class 1 railroads. Over the past decade, the overall accident rate has increased, but last year the industry had what it calls a record low in its mainline accident rate, meaning where trains are traveling as opposed to in rail yards.

Both Norfolk Southern’s overall accident rate and its mainline accident rate were higher last year than a decade ago. The railroad’s infrastructure investments and employee head count declined in recent years as accident rates climbed, said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the committee chair.

“This is a discussion about, are we putting the right resources into the network?” Cantwell said.

Pressed about the accident rates, and statistics showing at least 20 Norfolk Southern derailments since 2015 involving chemical releases, Shaw said he was not aware of those figures and that, from 2021 to 2022, many of the company’s freight safety statistics improved. “We will continue to get better. We are going to learn from this accident,” he said, adding that under his leadership, the company is investing in safety and hiring more workers.

Norfolk Southern and the industry at large has stood by its safety record in recent weeks, pointing to positive long-term trends. At the same time, railroads have agreed to take new measures after the East Palestine derailment, such as deploying more detectors to catch overheating bearings, joining a government close-call reporting system and aiming to expand availability of an app that provides emergency responders with details about hazardous materials on trains.

The East Palestine derailment occurred on the evening of Feb. 3. Preliminary NTSB findings indicate that an overheated wheel bearing was responsible. The train passed two detectors that registered that a bearing was starting to heat up, but it wasn’t until it passed a third that a danger threshold was tripped, sending an alert to the three-person crew. They weren’t able to stop the train before it derailed.

An initial fire was brought under control over the weekend, but a potentially more dangerous problem emerged: Hazardous vinyl chloride in one of the tank cars was heating, creating the risk of an explosion. Emergency responders decided to conduct a controlled burn of the five cars carrying the substance, a decision that sent a plume of black smoke over East Palestine.

At a previous hearing on the derailment before the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, witnesses and senators said there was confusion in the lead-up to making that decision, with Norfolk Southern not participating in some meetings. One emergency official described being floored to learn that all five cars would need to be burned, rather than just one.

The NTSB has been investigating relief valves on the cars carrying vinyl chloride that are designed to manage a buildup of pressure inside the tanks. Board Chair Jennifer Homendy told reporters after the hearing that valves on three of the five cars had become stuck but that investigators were still trying to determine when that happened.

“We have to do some further testing just to see, did it come that way or did it fail at some point during the derailment? Did it fail, and did they fail during the fire?” Homendy said.