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Transportation Sec. Buttigieg talks rail safety improvements


It's been exactly one year since a freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, unleashing fiery plumes of toxic chemicals. While there were no casualties, the incident put a big spotlight on freight, rail safety and how the government can better protect against accidents like this. That falls under the scope of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Since the derailment, he's been pushing for more action in Washington and urging Congress to pass a stalled safety bill. On ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, teams spent several days this week reporting in East Palestine. And the morning after we returned to Washington, we headed down to the Department of Transportation to talk to Buttigieg about it. I began the interview by asking about something that bothers a lot of people in East Palestine - the fact it's taken President Biden more than a year to visit.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Well, the president's going now to respond to the invitation that came from the community, but also directed his entire administration and this entire government from the beginning to be there every way that we can. And I think being there a year later is especially important to demonstrate that we're not forgetting because a lot of the same members of Congress who were so quick to try to score political points over this a year ago are nowhere to be found while the Railway Safety Act is still awaiting its turn.

DETROW: So let's talk more broadly about derailments. I'm sure you saw the headlines this week that, despite this intense focus over the past year, derailments are actually up nationwide. What's going on?

BUTTIGIEG: So there has been more and more volume on the rails. And as you said, derailments have continued. You know, there was a time when this country tolerated multiple thousands of derailments per year. Now, even after all the reforms that have happened over the years, we're still standing at roughly a thousand a year. That means every single day, on average, more than one derailment takes place. And there's a broader issue here, which is that there continue to be these safety issues, and customers are not pleased with the service that they're getting from the railroads. And workers are angry at the railroads, and yet they are incredibly profitable, almost ridiculously profitable, which means that the only pressure they're going to get from shareholders is to keep it up.

DETROW: Of the stuff in your control, there were a lot of regulation changes, a lot of voluntary agreements. I know you worked with unions, with the rail companies themselves. What's one aspect within your control that took place that you think was the most important over the past year?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, I think the focused inspections have been very important because they can turn up specific issues. They've done tens of thousands of cars, tens of thousands of miles of track. The other one that I'm very focused on right now is the minimum crew size rule. Right now, the railroad lobby is trying to make sure that they can have just one person on trains that could be miles long. Now, a regulation to deal with this was actually initiated by the Obama administration, halted by the Trump administration. We've renewed it under the Biden administration, and we're working to develop that. But I also have to say the machinery of government on a new rule that complex could be accelerated dramatically by Congress, and it's one of the things in that Railway Act.

DETROW: We talked to Alan Shaw, the Norfolk Southern CEO, about this this past summer, and he was talking about, you know, conductors who aren't on the trains. I forget the exact term he used. But he talked about, you know, these are people who have the same electronic readings who just kind of drive along during a set period, and that's their zone. And then they can stay at their homes at night. And he was really talking this up. What's your view on that argument? Because the big rail companies have really pushed back on this two-crew minimum. They see a future of one person, maybe even a crew-less train.

BUTTIGIEG: These trains are, again, a mile long, 2 miles long, 3 miles long or more. If the companies believe that it makes sense to have people on the ground at the places those trains go through, great. Do both. It's not like we're commanding them to have hundreds of people on board these trains. We're saying, how about two? Just basic common sense to me says that you at least want to have two people on board a train that might be carrying hazardous materials, that might be going at a high speed through communities. And if there are other technologies or layers you want to put on that, fine. But look. It's not like they're having trouble staying in business as railroads because they need too many conductors. We're talking about a business model where they have stripped tens of thousands of people out of their business model, out of their industry just in recent years.

DETROW: On that note, a lot of the stuff we talked about has been in previous draft versions of this legislation that, as you point out, is stalled. You've criticized Congress repeatedly for not bringing this bill forward in the Senate or the House. You've talked about the power of the rail industry as a big part of that. What can you do as the highest-ranking transportation official in this country to push back on that rail lobby pressure?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, we've used our rulemaking authority to advance things like having a minimum of two people on board these trains. Even that has gotten enormous pushback from industry. But we will continue using the authorities that we have, whether it's the inspections, the enforcement or the convening power, just sitting down with workers and with labor leaders, and being one of the few people in this country who railroad CEOs seem to be willing to call back. And it seems like this country goes through a cycle where there will be an incident, a tragedy. Then there will be a response - tougher regulations, more enforcement, stronger laws. And then it will get watered down under pressure from the railroad industry, which through American history has famously been one of the most adept at getting its way with Congress. And while it's one thing to imagine the old days of the robber barons and, you know, black-and-white photos of these railroad leaders, it's important to understand that those dynamics are true in the 21st century as well.

DETROW: Fewer mustaches, though.

BUTTIGIEG: Fewer mustaches, fewer beards, just as much power.

DETROW: In East Palestine, we found a lot of divides within the community, people who feel like they are still currently in danger because of the chemical exposure, people who feel like this has been overblown and it's time to move forward. What, if anything, can the federal government do to help address that type of environment in a specific community that has been upended due to a transportation accident?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, I think part of it is for the people who live in that community to know that everything they went through led to change, that, you know, nothing can take back what happened when that Norfolk Southern train went off the tracks that night, but that real action can come out of that. And that's part of how we can honor the people of that community. Frankly, it was clear, especially in the weeks after that disaster, that a lot of people were interested in using the people of East Palestine. And they saw that. They're smart. They felt that. I could sense that when I was on the ground. That's why it's so much more important than ever, a year later, after most of the cameras packed up and most of the politicians went on to other things, for them to know that we're still acting.

DETROW: Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Thanks for coming on the show.

BUTTIGIEG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Tinbete Ermyas
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