January 18, 2024

Ranking Members Larsen, Payne, Jr. Statements from Hearing on Railroad Grade Crossing Elimination and Safety

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Ranking Member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Rick Larsen (D-WA) and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Donald M. Payne, Jr. (D-NJ), during today’s hearing, titled, “Oversight and Examination of Railroad Grade Crossing Elimination and Safety.”

Video of Larsen’s and Payne, Jr.’s opening statements can be found here and here.

More information on the hearing can be found here.

Ranking Member Larsen:
Thank you, Chairman Nehls and Ranking Member Payne, for holding today’s hearing on rail safety.

Safety in every mode of transportation should always be this Committee’s top priority.

Since the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, Committee Democrats have been calling for a rail safety hearing and rail safety legislation.

In May 2023, every T&I Democrat signed a letter asking for a rail safety hearing highlighting the dozens of outstanding rail safety recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Today’s hearing is an opportunity to learn about those recommendations, and what Congress can do.

Nearly one year ago, we all watched as a giant plume of toxic fumes was released into the sky after the train derailment in East Palestine.

Fortunately, no one died in that derailment, but it remains a stark reminder why we need to be vigilant about rail safety.

The NTSB held a field hearing in East Palestine and took the unusual step of initiating its own investigation into the safety culture of Norfolk Southern.

The East Palestine incident was by no means the only rail accident that occurred last year. 
There have been more than 1,500 train accidents since the one in East Palestine. Among these:

  • A middle of the night evacuation was required in Raymond, Minnesota, when a BNSF train derailed.
  • A CSX derailment that required an evacuation of Livingston, Kentucky just before Thanksgiving.
  • CSX had three employee fatalities last year, two of whom were conductor trainees in Maryland.
  • In Skagit County, Washington, in my district, BNSF had locomotives derail along Padilla Bay, spilling thousands of gallons of fuel.

In Washington state alone, over the last five years there were 193 train accidents, 71 grade crossing incidents, and 167 railroad right-of-way trespasser fatalities.

Communities around the country are looking to Congress to act. Over 400 local officials sent a letter last March asking us to address rail safety—including Mayor Geoffrey Thomas of Monroe, Washington, and then-Mayor Jill Boudreau of Mount Vernon, Washington.

There is promising news. Over the last 40 years, railroads have seen a decline in the number of accidents or incidents.

In 1983, the United States had approximately 20,000 rail accidents and incidents a year. Today, we are down to around 4,400. 

That is a significant improvement—but there is still an upward trend over the last decade in the accidents and incidents per million train miles.

Communities across the country face challenges with railroads blocking crossings.

At least 37 states including Indiana, Ohio, Louisiana and South Dakota have passed laws prohibiting stopped trains from blocking crossings but railroads have fought state efforts in court.
The problem is, including for communities in my district, there are no federal requirements.

Blocked crossings pose safety risks—frustrated drivers may attempt to clear the crossing before a train arrives or pedestrians, including children on their way to school, may crawl between stopped railcars.

There were more than 22,000 reports of blocked crossings last year—most due to a parked train. First responders have been unable to cross tracks. And nearly a quarter of the time pedestrians were observed on, over, or through the train cars.

While Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) funding will help address these problems, public funding cannot be the only response to this issue.

The BIL was a monumental achievement that supercharged investment in rail with $102 billion in planned funding.

Many of these investments will improve safety, along with making service improvements.
To date, FRA has announced $26.7 billion in BIL funding for 238 rail projects nationwide.

Among the recipients was the City of Burlington, in my district, which received a planning grant to identify which one of its 16 at-grade crossings is most suitable for grade separation. I am pleased the city is able to move forward with this project, thanks to BIL funding.

I expect great results for communities from these grants and additional rail funding to come because there is more to do.

I look forward to this Committee passing legislation to address rail safety concerns.

This hearing and future discussions with communities who have rail service, the people who are impacted by derailments, and the employees who operate the railroads will inform the development of legislative solutions.

I thank the witnesses for being here today.

Ranking Member Payne, Jr.:
I thank Chair Nehls for holding this hearing. We are long overdue to discuss rail safety.

I want to thank our witnesses for being here today.

I especially want to thank NTSB Chair Homendy for her tireless efforts to keep us apprised of her agency’s safety investigations.

I also want to thank FRA Administrator Bose for his increased focus on safety and implementing billions of dollars in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding.

As trains increase in length, they block grade crossings nationwide.

Last year, this Committee saw footage from Hammond, Indiana, of schoolchildren forced to crawl under parked freight trains to get to school.

I’m pleased to see that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s Railroad Crossing Elimination program is funding a project in Hammond that will eliminate one of these crossings and hopefully allow children to safely get to school.

Freight railroads carry important cargo and what they transport is often essential to our daily lives, but those long trains can and do have accidents.

Ask the people of East Palestine, Ohio.

Freight rail safety is a challenge to communities across the country.

The Committee received a letter this week from the National League of Cities imploring Congress to act on rail safety legislation.

More than one in ten cities has experienced a rail incident and 64 percent of all rail incidents occurred within city boundaries over the last 10 years.

Without comprehensive rail safety legislation, we continue to allow local governments and first responders to face the daily rail derailments, deaths, and delays that have left communities frustrated.

Mr. Chairman, I would like to ask unanimous consent to insert this letter into the record. Thank you.

Since the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, there have been over 1,500 rail accidents.

In response, the FRA issued several rail safety advisories including on the use and maintenance of hot bearing wayside detectors, how cars should be organized on a train—including where empty cars should be placed, concerns with train length, and how to prevent weather-related accidents and incidents.

The Biden-Harris Administration acted on rail safety.

Congress should act, too.

I am glad to see railroads and rail unions have negotiated sick leave, but Congress can act here as well.

I introduced legislation that would guarantee all freight rail workers seven days of paid sick leave.

Not only is sick leave a basic right, but this also helps prevent worker fatigue.

I am disheartened; however, that negotiations on the Class I railroads have stalled regarding joining the Confidential Close Call Reporting System. 

This system is meant to provide rail workers a safe environment to report unsafe events and conditions.

Without it, rail workers might not report near-miss incidents because they are afraid of retaliation.

The Wall Street Journal reported that employees are rushed on equipment inspections.

This program would provide a forum for employees to share that information with a neutral third party rather than having to ask for help in the press.

I would like to ask for unanimous consent to insert this article into the record, along with three others from Pro Publica that detail a troubling culture of minimizing railroad worker incidents and injuries.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and I look forward to hearing from all of our witnesses and I yield back.