Buttigieg Takes Railroads to Task on Safety

Secretary Acknowledges Improvements, but Cites Troubling Accident Rates
CSX train crash
Smoke fills the sky after an empty CSX coal train hit a rockslide along tracks causing a fiery derailment on March 8, 2023, in a remote area just south of Sandstone, W.Va. (Jenny Harnish/The Register-Herald via AP)

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OMAHA, Neb. — Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has reiterated his concerns about railroad safety and scolded the industry for not doing more to improve since last year’s fiery Ohio derailment.

In a new letter to the freight railroads’ main trade group, Buttigieg acknowledged that railroads say they are committed to safety. He also gave them credit for agreeing to provide paid sick time to nearly 90% of their workers over the past year, and for investing in an extensive network of detectors and other technology to help prevent derailments.

But he said too often regulators encounter resistance when trying to get the industry to do more to improve safety. And he said the Federal Railroad Administration’s statistics don’t show safety improving significantly over the past decade.

“I want to enlist you in the project of rejecting, not defending, today’s status quo with its stagnant or worsening accident rates. The rate should be going down — and fast,” Buttigieg wrote in the letter to the Association of American Railroads that was made public late March 11. He urged the trade group to join with Congress and regulators to improve safety — not lobby against the reforms that were proposed after the East Palestine, Ohio, derailment in February 2023.

Pete Buttigieg

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks during a news conference near the site of the Feb. 3, 2023, Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. (Matt Freed/AP)

The latest statistics do show the total number of all accidents and the number of derailments declining in the U.S. at the major freight railroads over the past decade, but the amount of rail traffic is also down significantly over that time. When the distance freight travels is factored in, the rate of accidents and derailments has worsened.

Railroads do have a remarkably safe track record — much better than trucks — and the statistics show there are only 2.1 derailments per every million miles freight travels on rail across the country. But that still added up to 938 derailments nationwide last year. And as the Ohio derailment demonstrates, just one train crash involving hazardous materials can be disastrous.

The industry also notes that more than three-quarters of all derailments happen at slow speeds and don’t cause significant damage. But Buttigieg said that with two workers killed last year in railyard accidents he’s still concerned about those incidents. Plus, he pointed out that an explosion at a Union Pacific railyard last fall prompted evacuations in Nebraska.

The head of the AAR trade group, Ian Jefferies, said in his own letter to Buttigieg last month that “railroads are wholeheartedly dedicated to advancing safety through our own initiatives and collaborative efforts with DOT.”

Jefferies noted the major freight railroads — which include Norfolk Southern, BNSF, Union Pacific, CSX, Canadian National and CPKC — invest billions every year in maintenance, technology and training to prevent derailments.

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But Buttigieg said that the railroads have earned a reputation in recent years of being so obsessed with short-term profits that they neglect “other vital priorities like safety, long-term network development, customer service, worker well-being, and community engagement. When your industry objects to safety provisions, this perception deepens.”

The six biggest railroads reported more than $25 billion in profits last year, even as Norfolk Southern said the East Palestine derailment response had cost it more than $1.1 billion. Buttigieg said that shows the industry “is already extremely — some would say ridiculously — profitable.”

To achieve those profits, the railroads have cut their workforce deeply, prompting unions to raise concerns about needed maintenance being overlooked and crucial inspections being rushed. But the railroads counter that their safety record hasn’t gotten significantly worse as a result of the changes they have made to streamline their operations and make the best use of their workers and locomotives.