Local Leaders Urge Congress: Keep Rail Safety Legislation Track

May 16, 2023 - (6 min read)
Watch the press conference with Houston leaders addressing rail safety.

Houston, TX – Today, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and other local leaders held a press conference at 711 Milby Street, one of the most frequently blocked rail crossings in Texas, to highlight the need to address blocked rail crossings in communities and pass federal rail safety legislation. Throughout the U.S., rail crossings like the ones at Milby Street, Lockwood Drive, and Sampson-York Street, delay first responders in reaching those facing life-threatening emergencies and block communities’ roads, keeping adults from getting to work and children from getting to school.

With 140,000 miles of track in the United States crossing directly through thousands of the nation’s 19,000 cities, towns and villages, local officials and the National League of Cities are demanding action from Congress to improve rail safety in our communities. On Wednesday, May 10, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee passed the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023 (S.576). Both Senate and House action are still needed for final passage.

“Rail safety isn’t a red or blue issue, it’s a necessity for our country. At the local level, we’re pleased to see that the bipartisan Senate bill is picking up steam, and we’re eager to see it brought to the Senate floor for a vote. We’re urging our members to make sure their senators and members of Congress know how important this legislation is to their communities and why we need their support,” said Clarence E. Anthony, National League of Cities CEO and Executive Director

“Blocked rail crossings are more than a nuisance; they pose a safety risk and endanger the lives of people waiting for emergency services or create delays for parents trying to get to work or drive their children to school. Houstonians deserve to know that we put their safety first, and that’s why we have instituted the Smart Pilot for our emergency response. However, we cannot do this alone. I urge Congress to pass a practical rail safety bill. Communities and residents nationwide deserve an immediate fix to a problem that is happening in too many neighborhoods,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

“We cannot settle for promises without taking common sense precautions after watching East Palestine’s toxic derailment. Thousands of America’s cities, towns and villages have active train tracks in our districts and our residents’ safety depends on Congress moving the Railway Safety Act forward so we can keep trains moving safely,” said Houston Vice Mayor Pro Tem Martha Castex-Tatum and National League of Cities Transportation and Infrastructure Services Committee leader. “Today’s trains are longer and more likely to be carrying dangerous chemicals for them come off the rails more than 1,000 times per year right next to where our neighbors live.”

Railroad derailments and blocked crossings continue to cause safety hazards in communities across the United States. In 2022, on average there were three derailments per day throughout the country, and in the last twelve months, the Federal Railroad Administration’s blocked crossing portal identified more than 26,500 blocked crossing incidents. Of these, nearly one in every five prevented an emergency vehicle from crossing or required a pedestrian to climb over or under a train. Beyond the derailment and dangerous spillage of chemicals in East Palestine, OH earlier this year, other recent examples include:

In Maryville, TN, (pop. 31,907) in 2015, ahead of the Independence Day holiday, a 57-car train carrying 27 cars of hazardous, flammable and toxic substances derailed and caught fire, prompting the evacuation of thousands of people within a two-mile radius. About 5,000 people in the area were evacuated, and 197 people were injured with 87 treated at hospitals including ten first responders. The cities of Alcoa and Mayville emergency response expenses alone exceeded $225,000 in addition to Blount County’s larger emergency response. The final incident report notes that the derailment occurred 17.8 miles from the last Hot Box detector it passed. Hot Box detectors are meant to alert the crew to any problems like overheating wheel components.

In Boonville, IN, (pop. 6,246) a rail line that cuts through the middle of the city and the state highway poses safety risks for residents and emergency responders. When trains come through Boonville, emergency services cannot respond to calls for assistance in all parts of the city. Because of this danger, the city is considering building an additional $1-2 million fire station in the part of the community that does not have emergency services when trains block crossings. Boonville also had a derailment in 2014 that shut down the city for several days. It took 18 hours to reopen the state highways.

In Brunswick, MD, (pop. 8,046) blocked trains are a chronic problem, putting the city in a traffic chokehold that could be hours long due to longer trains being forced into an adjacent rail yard that is far too small to rebuild longer train sets. Trains spill out from the railyard and block street crossings in Brunswick impeding public safety responses to parts of the city and the busy river access where rescue operations can be needed quickly to save lives. In 2022, one blocking incident resulted in a tractor trailer and passenger train collision that damaged the train, the truck, adjacent vehicles and property. One casualty was Brunswick’s historic train station, costing an estimated $75,000-$100,000 in damages and endangering employees. Unfortunately, Brunswick has also experienced hazardous chemical scares where it took 12 hours and two response teams to resolve the situation and confirm the safety of Brunswick’s residents.

In Houston, TX, (pop. 2.2 million) the East End has the nation’s highest incidence of trains blocking roadways often for hours, forcing the city to deploy extraordinary measures and technology to allow for emergency responders to move around the areas blocked by trains. Currently, the City of Houston is monitoring 14 railroad crossings to continue to assess the issues as part of the Smart Railroad Crossing Project Plan as well as encouraging citizens to report blocked crossings to the Federal Railroad Administration. Through the Houston Smart Railroad Crossing Project, Houston Fire Station #18 as well as their ladder truck, pumper and district chief vehicles are equipped with portable tablets to access visuals and data on what areas are blocked as they respond to emergency calls. While this pilot allows for greater visibility, the cost burden falls on the city to solve for a national problem.

To speak to an expert or a local leader from a community impacted by rail incidents, please email media@nlc.org.


The National League of Cities (NLC) is the voice of America’s cities, towns and villages, representing more than 200 million people. NLC works to strengthen local leadership, influence federal policy and drive innovative solutions. Stay connected with NLC on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn and Instagram.