So it figures that Republican John Thune would stand in the way of legislation to prevent real train derailments and toxic disasters:
Ohio Sens. J.D. Vance (R) and Sherrod Brown (D) unveiled a rail safety proposal last week that has already won over the White House and top Democrats. But winning support from Republicans is proving to be harder as some question if it is too soon to move on a bill that could have unintended consequences.
“We’ll take a look at what’s being proposed, but an immediate quick response heavy on regulation needs to be thoughtful and targeted,” Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told The Hill.
“Let’s define the problem. Let’s figure out what the solutions are and if there are things we need to fix, we’ll fix them,” Thune continued [Al Weaver and Karl Evers-Hillstrom, “Bipartisan Rail Safety Bill Runs into Republican Roadblock,” The Hill, 2023.03.06].
Gee, John, it seems the toxic derailment in East Palestine, Ohio last month pretty well defined the problem:
Officials in East Palestine should have been notified in advance that a train carrying hazardous material was headed toward them, senators and hearing witnesses said Wednesday. And first responders should have known they were battling a chemical fire and been better prepared for the task with improved training and equipment, they said.
“People deserve to know what chemicals are moving through their communities and how to stay safe in an emergency,” National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy said. “That includes responders, who risk their lives for each of us every single day. They deserve to be prepared.”
That means they should have access to real-time information and proper communications and planning tools, she said [Jacob Fischler, “Priorities for Rail Safety Bill Debated in U.S. Senate Hearing with Norfolk Southern CEO,” South Dakota Searchlight, 2023.03.22.
The problem exists here in South Dakota, where we ship lots of chemicals on aging rails with overworked trainsmen:
Each year, trains carry nearly 11 billion pounds of chemicals through South Dakota’s cities and countryside, much of it on century-old tracks, a South Dakota News Watch analysis has revealed.
Finding out which specific compounds are in those potentially toxic payloads is extremely difficult or even impossible for the public due to national security concerns and secrecy within railroad companies.
In many cases, state and local officials are kept largely in the dark about what materials are being carried through communities and rural areas. Oftentimes, the nature of materials transported becomes known only after an accident.
…While U.S. per-mile safety data show that rail generally remains a relatively safe method of transportation of goods, rural states like South Dakota tend to have aged rail systems, with infrastructure sometimes built in the late 1800s or early 1900s, said Russell Quimby, an Omaha, Nebraska-based railroad expert and industry consultant.
Some railroad lines, especially shorter branch lines that are common in South Dakota, are not well-equipped to handle modern rail cars that weigh up to 286,000 pounds each and are part of increasingly longer trains, he said.
…The increased focus on rail safety in the U.S. also comes at a time when the railroad industry is staffed in some cases by employees who are vastly overworked, he said.
A nationwide railroad worker strike was narrowly avoided in February after employees complained, in part, that they were underpaid but also were prevented from taking any days off or receiving paid sick time.
Quimby said the railroad industry cut 9% of its workforce in the five years before the COVID-19 pandemic, and now, “the people they have are working to death. They’re cutting all kinds of corners, and after a while, you get employees who are burned out, and that indirectly affects safety, morale and all that” [Bart Pfankuch, “11 Billion-Pound Mystery: The Chemicals South Dakota Trains Carry,” South Dakota News Watch, 2023.03.21].
The Biden Administration is addressing the issue of degraded rail systems with investments from the big infrastructure bill. The railroad safety bill proposed by Ohio Republican rookie Representative J.D. Vance and Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown addresses the other problems:
The bill would require the Transportation Department to establish new safety regulations for trains carrying hazardous materials that are not classified as “high-hazard flammable.” Its provisions would require railroads to notify states when they are passing through, limit train length and restrict speeds.
…The legislation would also require that all trains have a minimum of two crew members aboard — a rule that Norfolk Southern has lobbied against in the past — and would increase the maximum fine that DOT can issue a rail company for safety violations from $225,000 to 1 percent of a railroad’s annual operating income. Norfolk Southern reported a record operating income in 2022 of $4.8 billion. Under the bill, it would be liable for up to $48 million in fines [Valerie Yurk, “Vance: Rail Safety Legislation Is Not ‘Big Government’,” Roll Call, 2023.03.22].
One problem the Vance/Sherrod bill does not address is that Senator Thune is still at heart a corporate railroad lobbyist:
In 2004, a registered lobbyist for a railroad corporation got himself elected to the U.S. Senate, and then he promptly helped his former client become eligible for billions in cheap federal loans in the wake of the company’s hazmat train derailment. The same Republican lawmaker later spearheaded the effort to repeal a major rail safety rule while becoming one of the Senate’s top recipients of campaign cash from the industry.
Now, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) is once again going to bat for the industry, positioning himself as a key obstacle to the most substantial rail safety initiative considered by Congress in years.
…Thune’s efforts to slow the measure are being boosted by the rail industry’s advocacy group, which previously gave him an award when he helped kill a train brake rule, and which now employs his former legislative staffer as its top lobbyist.
Thune embodies the railroad industry’s power in Washington, which extends beyond the Senate [Julia Rock, Jordan Uhl, and Matthew Cunningham-Cook, “Rail-Lobbyist-Turned-Senator Could Block Safety Bill,” The Lever, 2023.03.09].
There’s some old saw about fascists at least being able to make the trains run well. Alas, Thune and his fascist party can’t even get that right.