Opportunist Legislator Proposes Senseless Law

Yesterday morning at about 2:00a an eastbound Norfolk Southern train derailed on it’s way from Chicago to North Carolina by way of the Sandusky Line – a portion of the newly renovated “Heartland Corridor”.  During the wreck, at least one tank car of ethanol (a highly subsidized commodity) ignited resulting in a huge fireball. Though it happened near downtown, the area used to be a rail yard so even though there was a one-mile evacuation radius it only affected about 100 area residents.

It didn’t take long for Democratic Rep. Robert Hagan, a state rep who is a railroad engineer (and union representative), to use the incident to push some new legislation to increase state regulation of railroads (regulation that would be preempted by existing Federal laws and regulations based on the Wabash Case of 1886).

Here’s the article: Proposed Law Would Require Rail Crews To Be Notified Of Dangerous Chemicals

I see a few problems with the statements in the article.  For one, they interviewed a guy named Brian Houser (a search online couldn’t find anyone by that name who lives near an active railroad yard). From the article:

Brian Houser said that the worst part of living in the shadow of a railway yard is the noise.

There isn’t even a yard at the accident site anymore – just empty land that is returning to meadow. A pair of tracks curve there and trains only travel through the curve at 25mph. There aren’t even any railroad crossings nearby – so unless trespassers are on the tracks there isn’t even any honking.

The article continues interviewing John Fonner of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. The article said:

Fonner said that rail companies are not required to tell the government what and when they are transporting.

While this is technically true, under Federal Common Carrier law, the Federal Government actually requires railroads to carry dangerous substances like ethanol – and worse (for example liquid chlorine). What purpose would telling the Government serve when the Government is telling them to carry these materials in the first place – and also setting standards and procedures for the transport of such materials?

After a number of incidents involving liquid chlorine (which in a wreck can expand to form a toxic gas cloud) the Union Pacific Railroad opted to be exempted from Federal requirements to transport such dangerous chemicals. The Government refused the exception.

It even goes beyond that. In a 2005 wreck in Graniteville, SC, Norfolk Southern workers (who were distracted by regulations and penalties associated with Federal length of workday requirements) forgot to properly align a switch to a rail siding.

Eight people were killed after the mistake (caused by distraction about laws aimed to improve safety by reducing distraction) resulted in a tanker car of liquid chorine to be punctured.  This is a material that Norfolk Southern said it would prefer not to transport because in a wreck, if the tank is punctured, the chlorine boils to form a toxic cloud. Unfortunately, the Federal government requires the railroads to transport this chemical which is used in Government water treatment plants.

Since towns spring up around transportation infrastructure like railroads, it’s impossible to route this cargo around highly populated areas – and even harder considering that highly populated areas are the biggest customers for chlorine shippers.

To add insult to injury, after Federal regulations caused this crash and the Government forced the railroad to carry the chemical in the first place, after the crash the EPA sued the railroad for violating the Clean Water Act when chlorine from the wreck spilled into a nearby pond.

So what does Rep. Hagan propose? From the article:

Democratic state Rep. Roger Hagen, a veteran railroad engineer with 41 years of experience, said that crews are notified what their trains are carrying when they arrive to take the shipment. He has proposed a bill that would require railroads to notify its crews of what their trains are carrying at least 10 hours prior to departure.

The fact of the matter is that ALL TRAINS have hazardous materials on board (the locomotives alone carry thousands of gallons of diesel fuel) – and except in rare cases, having the materials on board do not change the way the train is operated. Moreover, as a veteran railroad engineer with 41 years of experience, Hagan should know that most trains aren’t even assembled 10 hours prior to departure.

I’m not sure what Hagan’s motives are, but it appears to be little more than pandering to organized labor and a public that is largely ignorant of railroad operations. I live about 4 miles from the crash scene – and within 500ft of this busy mainline, so of course I’m interested in safety for myself, my family, and my community – but pandering doesn’t help anyone. Not even the constituents who think they might benefit from this unenforceable feel-good resume-padding legislation.