Feb 20, 2023

Rail Industry Helped Block Stricter Safety Measures

The rail industry successfully lobbied against more stringent safety regulations leading up to the disaster in Ohio.

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The crash: Railway company Norfolk Southern’s train that derailed earlier this month was not classified as a “high-hazard flammable train” despite carrying five cars of vinyl chloride. The chemical was burnt to prevent an explosion after the crash, releasing a toxic gas cloud and creating a possible environmental catastrophe.

How we got here: In 2014, the Obama administration proposed stricter federal safety measures for railroad transportation. They required trains carrying “hazardous materials” to be equipped with electronic brakes. The Association of American Railroads, of which Norfolk Southern is a member, lobbied against the measures and managed to limit which chemicals would be classified as hazardous. After more pressure from lobbyists, the Trump administration reversed the measure entirely. According to experts, electronic brakes could have limited the damage in Ohio—they brake all cars simultaneously, preventing them from crashing into each other.

Norfolk Southern’s role and reaction: The company didn’t attend East Palestine’s town hall meeting but released a letter to the town, pledging $1 million “to help rebuild” and to carry out air, water, and soil testing. The railway’s CEO also apologized and pledged to make the situation right.

Big picture: Ohio’s crisis shines a spotlight on the dangers corporate lobbying can pose. Prior federal safety measures for railroad transportation could have prevented the crisis, but lobbying efforts cut these regulations to cut costs for railways.

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