Pete Buttigieg’s Transportation Department Is Skirting Safety Standards

The recent train derailment in Ohio shows the need for more stringent safety rules for train brakes, especially for trains carrying hazardous materials. Transportation regulators are instead bending to the interests of rail industry lobbyists.

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg speaks during President Joe Biden's remarks to highlight funding for the Hudson River Tunnel project at West Side Yard gate, New York, United States, January 31, 2023. (Lev Radin / Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images)

In the aftermath of a fiery Ohio train derailment, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg’s department has no plans to reinstate an Obama-era rail safety rule aimed at expanding the use of better braking technology, even though a former federal safety official recently warned Congress that without the better brakes, “there will be more derailments [and] more releases of hazardous materials.”

Instead, transportation regulators have been considering a rail industry–backed proposal that could weaken existing brake safety rules.

Most of the nation’s freight trains — including the Norfolk Southern train that derailed in Ohio — continue to rely on a Civil War–era braking system. Norfolk Southern belongs to a lobby group that successfully pressed President Donald Trump to repeal a 2015 rule requiring newer, safer electronic braking systems in some trains transporting hazardous materials, we reported this week.

When asked if the better braking technology would have reduced the severity of the Ohio accident, Steven Ditmeyer, a former senior official at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), said, “Yes.”

Though the Obama administration did originally enact a rule requiring those better brakes on some trains, its regulators sided with lobbyists and ignored the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) request that the safety rules apply to railcars carrying the kinds of dangerous, flammable chemicals onboard the Ohio train. Under the rules weakened by both the Obama and Trump administration’s decisions, that train was not being regulated as a “high-hazard flammable train.”

Democratic Ohio senator Sherrod Brown told us in a statement that the NTSB “should tell Congress and the Federal Railroad Administration what measures need to be put in place to avert accidents that allow hazardous materials to spill or catch fire in our communities.”

Brown added, “Railroads should not use their lobbyists to block or weaken commonsense safety measures that protect workers and communities.”

Buttigieg, who heads the Department of Transportation that oversees the railroads, has not said anything yet about the Ohio train derailment.

“It’s Time for ECP Brakes”

In the 1990s, the railroad industry moved to upgrade its century-old braking system with a new technology — electronically controlled pneumatic brakes (ECP) — designed to stop trains more quickly and safely. While the existing air brake systems stop railcars one by one as compressed air is transmitted through a pipe along the train, the newly developed ECP brakes stop all the cars at once using an electronic signal.

As we reported, Norfolk Southern and the Association of American Railroads (AAR), a lobbying group that represents Norfolk Southern and other railroad companies, first touted the benefits of the technology before reversing course and lobbying against rules requiring trains to install the new brake systems. After rail lobbyists weakened Obama-era rail safety rules, the Trump administration killed the brake requirement entirely.

In the years since, the FRA has not changed its position on the advantages of ECP braking, reiterating in a technical report published last year that the system “has been shown to improve both safety and braking performance of trains.” The agency noted that “implementation has slowed due to a variety of factors, only some of which are technical.”

One key reason for the delay, according to the FRA, was “the capital investment required and the unequal allocation of both costs and benefits from implementation among the stakeholders.”

In a congressional hearing last year, a former rail safety regulator warned that failing to require these upgraded braking systems could result in more catastrophic derailments.

“It’s time for ECP brakes,” testified Grady Cothen, a former safety official at the FRA who spent nearly four decades at the agency. “Why should we care? The price for not moving forward . . . will be more derailments, more releases of hazardous materials, more communities impacted.”

Cothen urged Congress to “direct FRA to proceed with regulatory action requiring the phased implementation of ECP brakes.”

The NTSB also touted the benefits of ECP braking during a House subcommittee hearing on freight rail safety last spring.

The electronic brakes “outperform other braking systems in stopping distance and energy dissipation during derailments,” an agency member testified. The staff member added that a fatal 2018 collision between two Union Pacific trains in Wyoming “could have been prevented had the train been equipped with an ECP braking system.”

“Another Financial Windfall to Rail Carriers”

Rail regulators in Buttigieg’s transportation department have not proposed strengthening the safety rules in question, even amidst these warnings that upgraded braking systems could have prevented recent accidents, or reduced the ensuing damage.

“FRA is continuing to evaluate the potential for usage of ECP brake equipment to improve railroad safety and braking performance, such as researching the potential development of other enabling technologies to support adoption,” a spokesperson told us. “As this evaluation continues to move forward, we’ll determine appropriate next steps for the agency to take.”

There is at least one brake safety proposal currently under consideration by federal rail regulators — an industry-backed rule relaxing brake testing requirements.

In 2021, in response to a petition from the AAR, the FRA proposed amendments to existing safety standards that would reduce the frequency of brake testing on freight cars equipped with an electronic inspection-tracking system.

The changes under consideration are staunchly opposed by five major rail unions.

“Following through with a final rule would only deliver yet another financial windfall to rail carriers by eliminating inspections, testing and repairs, and deferring routine maintenance,” according to comments filed by the unions opposing the rule.

The FRA is continuing to review comments on the industry-backed brake testing rule, the agency confirmed.