Senate Dems seek answers for rail safety in Pennsylvania

A derailed Norfolk Southern train car is hoisted to an upright position away from the banks of the Mahoning River after a derailment in New Castle earlier this month.

HARRISBURG — Democrats in the Pennsylvania Senate hosted a policy meeting Friday toward strengthening safety regulations for the rail industry, and if the tenor of that meeting is any indication, effective legislation will be hard to enact.

Railroads are subject to federal laws governing interstate commerce and rail operations that preempt state regulations.

States have authority to enforce standards for highway-rail grade crossings. In Pennsylvania, the state’s Public Utility Commission handles crossings and, in concert with the Federal Railroad Administration, conducts safety inspections of railroad facilities. The state agency has no oversight on rail operations.

Friday’s meeting was the latest inspired by Norfolk Southern Railway’s toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, just across the Pennsylvania-Ohio border. An investigation and environmental remediation continue more than three months later.

Last week, another Norfolk Southern train derailed in Lawrence County, about 17 miles from the Ohio crash. Nine cars wrecked at a bridge crossing over the Mahoning River in New Castle, spilling soybeans. Though a major environmental disaster was averted, hazardous materials were being transported on other cars of the 216-car train that didn’t jump the tracks.

Sen. Katie Muth, D-Chester/Montgomery/Berks, chair of the Democratic Policy Committee, voiced frustration that state government couldn’t enact speed restrictions, for example, along with what she described as limited classification of materials deemed hazardous and testing requirements following a derailment.

She posited that federal law may be specific to economic regulations and that states may have room to enact safety standards such as speed controls.

Stephen DeFrank, vice chair of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, said federal law preempts state action. He acknowledged some states have made laws centered around rail safety but that they haven’t yet been challenged in court.

“I’m not sure we have the authority in our regulations to impose that,” DeFrank said of safety standards.

Pennsylvania lawmakers have proposed at least five bills regarding rail safety that seek to:

• Require the Public Utility Commission to hire more rail safety inspectors

• Restrict the length of freight trains

• Require at least two operators on trains

• Create an emergency grant program for derailments, and

• Enact comprehensive measures addressing minimum staffing, train length, hazardous materials reporting and wayside detector systems.

None have received a floor vote in either the state House or Senate, though the two-year session is just five months old. Just one advanced to a chamber floor without referral back to a committee, so far.

According to the Pennsylvania PUC, the commonwealth has 65 rail operators — the most in the country. Its 5,600 miles of track rank third.

The Policy Committee, citing federal data, found there were more than 1,100 derailments last year, though most don’t rise to the level of a severe crash. While railroad companies must notify states about transport of large quantities of flammable liquids, the committee said there are no reporting requirements about chemicals deemed hazardous.

Paul Pokrowka, state legislative director for the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers Union, is a former train engineer. He testified about working conditions, describing rail work as unsafe and the relationship with management as virulent.

He challenged testimony related to the East Palestine derailment from the rail industry, emphasizing that outside of an accident, train crews can’t decide on their own to stop a train even if they feel there’s a safety risk.

“It’s a disgusting environment to work in,” Pokrowka said, emphasizing that whistleblowers risk their careers and their own family’s well-being if they raise concerns. “The thousands of railroaders I represent are tired of kicking the can down the road.”

Matthew Brown, chief fire marshal with the Allegheny County Department of Emergency Services, said just one of five fire companies that make up the county hazmat team is a career company. The rest are volunteers. Often when responding to hazmat incidents, he said fees collected to cover such a response don’t approach the actual cost.

Muth called the state budget a “moral document” prioritizing funding. There are efforts to stimulate business, she said, but the practice of funding emergency services largely through grants and not a consistent funding stream should be reconsidered.

“I was dumbfounded by the workers not having a voice,” said Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Allegheny.

“Their safety’s at stake and they don’t seem to have a voice,” he said. “We need to look at funding for equipment, personnel and training.”

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