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Full Steam Ahead as States Back Federal Efforts to Boost Rail Safety

With three bipartisan freight rail measures making their way through Congress, at least 19 states considered bills on rail safety this year.

By Kristen Hildreth and Mia Geoly  |  October 9, 2023

Freight rail plays a vital role in the nation’s transportation and trade systems: Rail lines connect local and regional economies to the global marketplace, generate billions of dollars in economic activity and host passenger rail service. Recent high-profile freight train derailments, however, have highlighted safety concerns in an industry that travels through thousands of communities.

The Federal Railroad Administration, or FRA, reported over 1,100 derailments in 2022, or an average of three a day. High-profile derailments in East Palestine, Ohio, and Raymond, Minn., catalyzed increased scrutiny of the role states and state legislatures can play in ensuring freight rail services are safe and minimizing impacts to local communities.

In response, the U.S. Department of Transportation has taken several steps to strengthen rail safety, including announcing a new safety inspection initiative on rail routes used by trains carrying high-hazard flammable materials and those carrying large volumes of hazardous materials; launching a new Center of Excellence to “advance research and development efforts that seek to improve the safety, performance and sustainability of freight, intercity passenger and commuter rail”; and promising to finalize promulgation of its train crew staffing rulemaking to update minimum staffing requirements.

Congress has even united across party lines to enhance the safety of the national freight rail network. Currently, three bipartisan measures addressing freight rail safety are moving through both chambers, with Ohio Sens J.D. Vance (R) and Sherrod Brown (D) leading the push for new safety requirements. The Railway Safety Act of 2023, which has a companion in the House, requires the Transportation Department to issue updated safety regulations for trains carrying hazardous materials, to establish requirements for track-side systems such as hot box detectors to locate failures, and to establish a minimum two-person crew for certain freight trains.

In addition to the federal efforts, at least 19 states—Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah and Washington—introduced legislation regarding rail safety in 2023, and five of those—Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Utah—have enacted legislation. States considered such measures as requiring increased crew members on trains, limiting train length, requiring wayside or hot box detectors, creating grade separations and developing comprehensive emergency response plans.

State Actions on Rail Safety in 2023

Minnesota’s transportation budget bill (HF 2887) includes several rail safety provisions:

  • Class I and Class II railroads must operate with a crew of at least two, with penalties for violations that increase with each offense. They must also increase the number of rail safety inspector positions to six from four.
  • Railroads must offer training to fire departments and local emergency management on hazardous substances.
  • Railroads must coordinate emergency response planning with fire departments on routes where hazardous substances are transported, with attention to risks and special responses associated with high population concentration and sensitive natural environments.
  • Railroads must pay for emergency preparedness.

Ohio requires (HB 23) freight trains to be operated by a crew of at least two and sets penalties for violations that increase with each offense. The bill also requires railroad companies to use updated, federally approved wayside detector systems.

Michigan enacted two bills addressing the separation of motor vehicle and rail traffic at road crossings:

  • SB 125 creates a grant program local governments can use to pay for grade separation projects or projects that improve traffic at a rail crossing without a full grade separation.
  • HB 4153 details the parameters for approving the funding applications.

Missouri (HB 4) appropriated $53 million to eliminate at-grade railroad crossings.

Utah established the Office of Rail Safety (HB 63) to perform inspection, compliance and enforcement duties for grade crossings, and to establish operating practices.

Freight Trains Block Roads Nationwide

Blocked highway-rail grade crossings, which occur when stopped trains impede the flow of motor vehicle or pedestrian traffic at railroad tracks for extended periods of time, result from a rail industry strategy known as “precision-scheduled railroading.” The strategy, which is intended to increase efficiency and reduce costs, uses fewer staff and longer trains, according to the Government Accountability Office. It has raised significant concerns in communities nationwide.

Blocked crossings, especially in rural communities, can prevent vital emergency services from responding in a timely manner. In a 2019 study on freight train length and associated rail safety, the GAO called on the Federal Railroad Administration to work with railroads to engage state and local governments to reduce the impacts of long freight trains on rail crossings. While the FRA has no regulatory authority over blocked crossings, the data it has collected will help the agency identify where chronic problems exist. The agency created a web portal for the public to report blocked crossings in 2019. But of the 18,000 incidents reported in 2020 and 2021, only 900 were investigated.

In absence of federal regulation to limit the length of freight trains, 37 states and Washington, D.C., have passed legislation related to blocked grade crossings, either regulating train length or the amount of time they can stop at grade crossings. At least nine states considered or are considering bills regulating train length. Nevada was the only state to pass such a bill this year. It was ultimately vetoed by the governor over concerns it would not withstand litigation.

The attorneys General of 18 states and the district have called on the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold state authority to regulate blocked railroad crossings and prevent stripping states of their “unquestioned police power to regulate grade crossings in the interest of public safety.” With more than 200,000 grade crossings nationwide, intersecting roads in major urban centers and remote outlying areas, the issue is significant; but state laws governing trains blocking railroad grade crossings face uncertainty.

Given the substantial bipartisan action across the nation, the message to the rail industry is clear: Address the outlined safety concerns and work proactively with state and local governments to protect the safety of their residents and communities.

Kristen Hildreth is a senior legislative director in NCSL’s State-Federal Relations Division and Mia Geoly was a policy analyst in the Transportation Program.

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