FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Since a train containing hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, conversations around how to make freight trains safer and preventing future derailments have taken place.
Some elected officials have argued the lack of regulations for railroads played a role in the recent derailments. Another issue that lingers which hasn’t got the most attention is the fact that state and local governments don’t have any power over the railways.
Bernie Beier, Allen County’s Homeland Security Director, said when it comes to train derailments, only the federal government has authority to manage them and set standards for trains.
“Only the federal government has oversight power of the railways and has access to inspection reports,” Beier said. “Local officials have little to no authority over them.”
He noted that after the derailment in Ohio, their state’s governor Mike DeWine had to ask for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other federal agencies to come in since he wasn’t able to take actions himself.
“There were people in East Palestine asking the mayor to do something about it and he wasn’t able to since he has no power,” he added.
The Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) does not have any authority over railroads either.
Beier argues that local governments should have a seat at the table when disasters like train derailments happen and they and the federal government should be able to manage crises together.
“The city of New Haven has spent money putting up signs around train tracks and the mayor wishes he could have authority over them, but there’s nothing he could do if a situation like this were to happen,” he said.
A spokesperson for Senator Mike Braun said in an email that he is “always going to be for putting more power in the hands of local and state governments, because that’s the government that’s closest to our communities and is most accountable.”
He disagrees with the arguments about the lack of railroad regulations saying that new laws regarding train safety can often lag and take longer periods of time to get done. The industry has witnessed new innovations occur in recent years like making trains faster so they get to their destinations quicker. Recent issues with the global supply chain has put pressure on the industry to get trains to its destinations faster.
“New laws can take up to two years to get passed. Change happens quicker while managing risk becomes harder,” he said.
Beier argues rail companies like Norfolk Southern do care about safety and that they collaborate with local officials on training and other safety procedures. He thinks when disasters like the one in East Palestine happen, the railroads automatically become the bad guy.
“Safety is paramount to them (Norfolk Southern). It’s not all on the rail companies,” he said.
Norfolk Southern has a program called Operation Awareness and Response (OAR) which was founded in 2015 where they work with local and state officials to provide safety training to first responders. They learn how to stop a leakage and safely take out fires.
He said different counties help each other out and often train together.
Another issue with railroads is the fact that information about train traffic and how much of it contains hazardous materials is not tracked.
A spokesperson for Norfolk Southern said they do not track that information due to security issues it would potentially cause.
No federal agency tracks the movement of cargo trains or what types of cargo is being transported since they believe that information is proprietary.
In response to the derailment, congress is working on legislation which includes a requirement for railroads to notify local officials when hazardous materials are coming through the area. The bill would also require two-person crews on each train and require rail companies to monitor the temperatures of wheel bearings on train cars.