Cantwell: “We Can't Just Rely On The Railroads To Voluntarily Do This”

Train conductor, Pasco mayor, first responders, and union leaders join Cantwell to call for stronger federal rail safety regulations; Railway Safety Act of 2023 includes provisions that would have likely prevented disaster in East Palestine, OH

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), joined with rail experts and community stakeholders to discuss the urgent need for federal rail safety reform and to call on the Senate to pass the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023.

Speaking alongside Sen. Cantwell were:

  • Andy Collins, Battalion Chief of the Seattle Fire Department;
  • Dave Byers, Response Section Manager for the Washington State Department of Ecology and a lead responder at the rail crude oil spills in the Columbia River Gorge in 2016 and Custer, WA in 2020;
  • Wil Badonie, Environmental Specialist for Yakama Nation and co-lead with Dave Byers in responding to the 2016 spill;
  • Blanche Barajas, Mayor of Pasco;
  • Dave Arouca, Transportation Communications Union;
  • Herb Krohn, Train Conductor and WA State Legislative Director for transportation union SMART-TD

“We're here because we finally have a strong bipartisan effort that can help us prevent disasters in the future -- and we want to see it on the Senate floor. With derailments in our state on the rise, and with the accident we saw in East Palestine, it's time to pass national rail safety improvement,” Sen. Cantwell said. “Rail transportation is critical to our state, and we need to continue to do everything we can to make sure an East Palestine incident doesn't happen here in Washington. We know that we can't just rely on the railroads to voluntarily do this.”

“This critical legislation will require trains in our nation to be operated by a crew consisting of no less than two persons,” Herb Krohn said. “Over the last several decades, the Class I railroads of this country have eliminated staffing in every area of their operations … This is all being done to lower operating costs and maximize the income to profit ratios, all at the expense of public safety.” 

“Carmen used to be allowed six to eight minutes per car (inspection), then it was moved down to three minutes a car, which was much faster but still doable. But today … they are expected within one minute or less – that’s 30 seconds per side. Mind you, there are about 180 points of inspection for rail car. That is simply impossible to do with any safety,” Dave Arouca said. “That's why the Railway Safety Act is so incredibly important. Not only for railroad workers, but for every single community where our freight trains pass through.”

Each year, 44 million tons of hazardous materials are transported by rail through the State of Washington, including 1.4 billion gallons of crude oil in 2022. Crude oil rail lines pass in or near Washington’s largest cities, including Seattle, Spokane, Vancouver, Pasco, and Bellingham.

A map of the railroad lines running through Washington state is available HERE.

“I've had firsthand experience as Washington's lead representative in unified command in several train derailments, fires and chemical releases across Washington and affecting our state -- of note, the 2016 derailment in Mosier, Oregon, the 2020 derailment in Custer, just north of Bellingham, and most recently, my agency responded to the derailment in Anacortes in the Swinomish tribes and the reservation lands,” Dave Byers said. “It takes an act of Congress to solve some of the critical safety issues that are that are addressed in this bill … this legislation addresses key gaps in some pretty important areas.”

“The Yakama Nation is one of the Columbia River Treaty tribes, so we recognized the derailment in Mosier, Oregon, had significant impact,” Wil Badione said. “Incidents like derailments can have a big impacts to our waters, to tribal foods.”

In Seattle, an average of forty trains pass through the city every day. During the last three months, more 8,000 tank cars filled with crude oil were transported through King County. Over the past decade there have been 52 Class I railroad derailments in King County, including seven last year alone.

“Rail runs through as well as under our communities ... we need all the tools to prevent disastrous derailments, as well as information about what's being transported through our communities,” Andy Collins said. “We're pleased to see this legislation also include reimbursement for fire for the equipment and supplies used by the relevant responders. Currently, any equipment that is damaged or contaminated must be replaced at taxpayer expense. And that can be a very heavy impact on already tight budgets.”

In Pasco, an average of 34 BNSF freight trains travel through the city every day, some of which carry crude oil. The Washington State Department of Transportation expects this to increase by 58%, to 56 trains each day 2040.  In the tri-county region of Benton, Franklin, and Walla Walla counties, 43 Class I derailments have occurred in the last decade resulting in $6.8 million in damages and involved a total of 93 cars carrying hazardous materials. In recent years derailments have become more frequent in the region, increasing from two derailments in 2012 to six derailments in 2022.

“We are very supportive of this act,” Blanche Barajas said. “We can take precautions, but precautions do not guarantee that there will not be a spill.”

On May 10, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation chaired by Sen. Cantwell passed the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023, which would implement new safety measures to better prevent and respond to derailments like the incident in East Palestine, OH. On Wednesday, Sen. Cantwell held a press conference outside the Capitol alongside Deanna Dawson, CEO of the Association of Washington Cities, and mayors from around the country, to address the need for strong railway safety legislation. That press conference can be watched HERE. The full Senate will consider the legislation at a future date.

Among other provisions, the legislation would:

  • Mandate the use defect detection technology that could have prevented the East Palestine derailment;
  • Expand the types of hazardous materials that trigger increased safety regulations like speed restrictions, better braking, and route risk analysis;
  • Strengthen emergency response plans to prepare for railroad disasters; and 
  • Ban rail companies from imposing time limits for railcar inspections.

A full list of the eight key safety provisions included in the bill can be viewed HERE.

Video of today’s press conference is available HERE; audio HERE; photos and a map of WA state rail lines is HERE; and a transcript HERE.