Railroads are part of America’s communities. Railroad tracks run through towns and villages of every size, moving goods from farms to factories to ports and bringing passengers across the country. However, transportation comes with risks, and the question every local official and member of Congress is asking after the disaster derailment in East Palestine, OH, is how we can make it safer.
There are several proven ways to make rail movement in the U.S. safer by using technology, enforcing standards and best practices and assessing risks. The National League of Cities continues to support action by Congress to give the U.S. Department of Transportation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to take actions to improve rail safety in the U.S. While the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes important rail safety programs, like the Railroad Crossing Elimination Program, there is room for targeted policies that have been in discussion in the halls of Congress for some time. Here are our detailed rail safety recommendations to Congress.
Congress Introducing Legislation and Hearings
A group of bipartisan Senators came together this week to respond with the Railway Safety Act of 2023. This legislation includes several proposals to prevent derailments like we saw in East Palestine and make our rail network safer for communities and railroad workers. Additionally, members in the House introduced a safety bill to expand the list of hazardous substances and require rail carriers to report to the National Response Center, state officials, and local officials within 24 hours of a derailment with hazardous materials onboard. NLC is glad to see these discussions and has encouraged Congress to act on several possible solutions that make rail safer. This week, we sent a letter to Congress with our recommendations.
Cities agree with the Senators that no family in America should be forced to flee their home because hazardous materials have spilled or caught fire in their community. Americans expect Congress to assess the safety of railroads carrying hazardous materials as trains travel through their communities based on what we know today, but also as more information becomes available from the NTSB’s factual findings, they and USDOT can follow up on that too.
Next week, on Thursday, March 9, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will host a full committee hearing on addressing the environmental and public health threats from the train derailment and chemical release in East Palestine, Ohio. We expect additional Congressional hearings on train safety this year and will keep local leaders updated as they happen.
How Cities Can Take Action on Rail Safety
The safe and efficient movement of people and goods must be the prime objective of transportation policy at all levels of government, but local governments find most rail safety improvements questions boomerang back to Congress as the only recourse. However, with 140,000 miles of track in the U.S. crossing directly through many of the nation’s 19,000 cities, towns and villages, local officials continue to look for actions they can take now to improve rail safety in their communities.
First, local officials can ensure all eligible local first responders’ have applied to use the “AskRail” phone app to provide better information as they arrive on the scene of a rail incident.
The AskRail app, launched in 2014, is a collaborative effort among the emergency response community and all North American Class I railroads. The app provides more than 25,000 first responders — from all 50 states and eight Canadian provinces — with immediate access to accurate, timely data about what type of hazardous materials a railcar is carrying so they can make an informed decision about how to respond to a rail emergency.
Next, assess your rail risks as a community. How many derailments and blocked crossings have happened in or near your community? Consider asking your city team and even residents to use the Federal Railroad Administration’s Blocked Rail Crossing tool to report issues with trains in your community. If the crossings and infrastructure are an issue, consider what federal rail grants may be helpful to your community or if your state or metropolitan planning organization (MPO) might be a good partner to help with upgrades especially along an entire corridor.
Make your community’s voice heard
Join NLC in making your community’s voice heard while Congress is considering legislative action. You can join NLC’s city officials in signing onto our letter here requesting Congress action on rail safety. Also, consider calling your Senators and Representative in Congress to express what your city’s rail situation is and why your city and state is not able to act entirely alone because rail is often an interstate commerce issue.