NCN Investigates: NE rail safety fight alive and well
In the nearly one year, since a massive train derailment in Palestine, Ohio sent toxic fumes into the air and forced the evacuation of 2,000 residents, calls for greater rail safety have escalated, and Nebraska is no exception.
With 10 states now requiring freight trains carry a minimum of 2 crew members, that same mandate is under consideration in the Nebraska Legislature.
But the bill has run into roadblocks in the past, so as NCN’s Joe Jordan tells us that 2-crew order is far from a done deal.
[View our full video report above]
Concerned Citizen: “I’ve been coming up here so long don’t want to come up again on this.”
Concerned Citizen: “I’ve stood up here before giving the same repetitive testimony.”
The issue railroad safety. Specifically, a proposed law mandating a minimum, that’s right a minimum, of two-person crews.
A proposal Big Rail, Union Pacific and Burlington Northern have opposed.
By the way those complaining that they’ve made their pitch to state lawmakers before and lost before were not exaggerating.
Take this hearing from 2015, nine years ago:
Jeff Davis, BNSF Railroad: “Technology has helped make railroading safer than it's ever been, safer than we had three-man crews safer than we had with five or six men crews.”
Now back to last year’s hearing.
Jeff Davis, BNSF Railroad: “We've reduced crew size at least three times over the last 50 years, today we’ve reduced the number of train accidents by over 80 percent.”
Concerned Citizen: “I Hope this bill doesn’t get bottled up in committee like it has before get it to the floor for some debate.”
And while it’s not clear if this year’s bill will get to the full floor for debate what is clear is this, the issue goes beyond Nebraska.
Last Week Tonight, with John Oliver:
Greg Regan, AFL-CIO: “It’s really alarming that the railroad industry actually wants to cut back the number of people operating on a train from two, as is the current standard, to one.
John Oliver: “Right, one person. Which is absurd. Trains need an engineer to drive the train and a conductor for the rest of it. It’s not one of those jobs where we have two people do it, even though it clearly only requires one, like anchoring the news or renovating a home, or hosting the 2011 Oscars. And, people who work on these trains will tell you, every part of their job is exhausting now.”
The state’s biggest railroads spare little expense trying to keep lawmakers on their side.
According to state records examined by News Channel Nebraska, during the last election lone Union Pacific and Burlington Northern sent hefty campaign contributions to nearly half of the Legislature, 23 state senators, and Gov. Jim Pillen.
The lawmakers receiving a total of nearly $57,000.
Add in the railroads’ lobbying of lawmakers, another $174,000, and Union Pacific and Burlington Northern shelled out a total of $285,000 in political cash to Lincoln, in just the last few years.
News Channel Nebraska asked Gov. Pillen if he supports that minimum 2-person crew.
According to his office, “The administration intends to keep studying this issue. Rail safety is a key priority…we will consult with stakeholders and others to identify a solution that best ensures public safety.”
By the way among those lawmakers who did not, did not receive a dime from Big Rail…
State Sen. Mike Jacobsen: “So let’s talk about...”
…is State Sen. Mike Jacobsen, the lawmaker pushing hardest for that minimum 2-person crew.
Sen. Jacobsen: “Train lengths have grown from over one mile to over three-and-a-half miles over the last few years. Single employee operation is inherently unsafe and dangerous for both the public and employees.”
Jacobsen’s bill has at least 14 co-sponsors. Twenty five votes are needed to pass the bill, 33 votes to overcome any potential filibuster.