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Amid derailments, state lawmakers work on legislation to improve rail safety

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Another freight train has derailed in Ohio. It was Saturday night, one month and one day after a different train carrying toxic chemicals went off the tracks in East Palestine, Ohio. This latest train was not carrying hazardous materials, and no one was injured. But in the months since the East Palestine catastrophe, rail safety has come to the fore.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: That's why we have a three-part drive going on right now - things we're doing as a department, things that we need Congress to help with and things that the rail industry should do right away.

CHANG: That was U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaking to NPR last month. Now, the U.S. Congress has not passed any new legislation yet, but at the state level, lawmakers are not waiting for Congress to act. Let's welcome Ohio State Representative Michele Grim, a Democrat, and Nebraska State Senator Mike Jacobson, a Republican. They join us now. Welcome to both of you.

MIKE JACOBSON: Thank you.

MICHELE GRIM: Thank you very much.

CHANG: Representative Grim, I want to start with you. Can you just tell us, how is your state doing after these two derailments?

GRIM: You know, we're obviously trying to take action now. So we just passed our transportation budget out of the House floor last week and have two pieces of legislation and that transportation budget around rail safety.

CHANG: Yeah. Tell us briefly a little more what is contained in that proposal, those two aspects.

GRIM: Yeah. So one of those amendments we had was mandating two-person crew. We've been hearing from rail workers for decades that we need a two-person crew minimum because they're afraid that the rail industry is going to try and roll back some of the safety measures there. So the other one is making sure that railways have wayside defect detectors so that way they can be alerted right away when there is an issue. This is the first legislation in the country that would require these wayside defect detectors.

CHANG: And, Senator Jacobson in Nebraska, I understand that at the beginning of this year, you introduced legislation to require a minimum crew size for freight trains. This was, of course, before the incident in East Palestine. Can you just explain for us why a minimum crew size is important for rail safety?

JACOBSON: Sure. I'd be happy to. I think that we deserve to have no less than two crew members on a train since the engineer is going to be running the train, the conductor's there to be able to disconnect a train to allow for crossings that are getting blocked. When trains are 3 1/2 miles long, you block a lot of crossings when they stop. In the event of a derailment, the conductor has a copy of the manifest. So like in Ohio, that conductor was able to get off the train, be able to identify, let the first responders know exactly what was inside each of those cars in terms of toxic material and was there to also help clear people and get people to safety. That's what having that second crew member onboard the train...

CHANG: Right.

JACOBSON: ...At all times - why that's so important.

CHANG: And, Senator Jacobson, you mentioned the FRA. It is the Federal Railroad Administration that generally regulates the rail industry across state lines. Do you see a potential hang-up if there are different rail safety laws in different states or even different municipalities?

JACOBSON: I do. There's no question it's problematic to do it patchwork. I think this should be federal. What we're doing with this bill in Nebraska would just simply be putting in statute - so we're not adding crew members. There is two-person crews required today. We're just going to put in statute that you're required to maintain those crew members. And then later, if the FRA meets later this summer and/or if Congress will pass legislation to require it, which is what's preferable, then that would be the law of the land. And it would not disproportionately affect railroads that are operating in one state or another.

CHANG: Yeah. Let me ask this question of both of you. In pushing the state legislation that both of you support in your respective states, is your ultimate goal to push the federal government to act?

JACOBSON: That's exactly what my position is, yes. I want the federal government to act. I'm hoping that our bill, regardless of its fate, sends a message, just as those in the other eight states that currently have such legislation, that it's time for the federal government to act.

CHANG: Representative Grim.

GRIM: Yeah, absolutely. We want the federal government to act. We have a thousand derailments a year in this country. I've just had now at least three in my state. So, you know, we really need the federal government to act.

CHANG: Well, let me ask you - I mean, I realize right now, at this moment, we're speaking to both a Democrat and a Republican. How would either of you convince the U.S. Congress to come together on this issue?

GRIM: You know, we work together as a bipartisan body in Ohio to bring these amendments together in our transportation budget. So, you know, we can definitely work together in a bipartisan manner. And hopefully Congress will come together as well to show that, you know, we need to make sure that there's more regulation in the rail industry.

CHANG: Senator Jacobson.

JACOBSON: I would just tell you it is bipartisan here, largely because this is not a partisan issue. This is an issue of doing the right thing. I've been a banker for 43 years. I can tell you as a banker, I don't like regulation. I don't know what the industry would look like without regulation. So a lot of people say, Mike, you're a Republican. Why are you wanting to impose a mandate on private business? And my answer to that is that I think many of these businesses - in this case, the railroads - would probably welcome universal rules that everyone would have to abide by, that would that would allow them to be on a level playing field and provide public safety. All we've heard about from all the railroad companies after this is safety is their top priority. My response to that is, then prove it to me.

CHANG: Republican Mike Jacobson of Nebraska and Democrat Michele Grim of Ohio, two state lawmakers trying to push legislation for rail safety. Thank you both so much for joining us today.

JACOBSON: Thank you.

GRIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.