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Rail CEO consistently noncommittal

During two U.S. Senate committee hearings, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw has remained consistent: he’s sorry for the Feb. 3 derailment that caused the release of toxic chemicals in East Palestine, his company will “make it right” and he supports some rail reforms to make sure a similar incident doesn’t occur again.

Also consistent is his reluctance to commit to specifics.

U.S. Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., aggressively questioned Shaw on Thursday as part of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. He became so frustrated with Shaw’s answers that at one point he said an answer sounded “like a lobbyist response.” It wasn’t a compliment.

Welch was asking if the Feb. 3 rail disaster in East Palestine was preventable and if Norfolk Southern was responsible.

Shaw said the accident was preventable and that “we are responsible for safety on our network and working within the entire industry to enhance safety. I think about safety every day.”

Welch fired back: “OK, let me understand this. You’ve just reluctantly acknowledged A) it’s preventable, and B) it was your responsibility to prevent it. Am I incorrect?”

Shaw responded: “Senator, I’m taking responsibility to enhance safety throughout the entire industry.”

U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., twice questioned Shaw as a member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works March 9 and Thursday as a member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Markey asked Shaw on Thursday if he would commit to legislation that requires at least a two-person crew on all freight trains. Shaw wouldn’t, saying he was “not aware of data that crew size equates to safety.”

Markey again asked for a commitment with Shaw responding that “we’ll commit to using research and technology to ensure the railroad operates safely.”

Markey said, “I get sick of industry executives talking about the principles of regulations while lobbying against commonsense regulations like this behind the scenes.”

Shaw was more specific Thursday than he was earlier this month about supporting portions of the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023 — co-sponsored by U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland, and J.D. Vance, R-Cincinnati. That’s likely because he’s facing enormous pressure to do something as Congress is looking to pass rail reforms and has bipartisan support.

The bill would enhance safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials, require railroads to create disaster plans, tell emergency response commissions what hazardous materials are going through their states, establish requirements for wayside defect detectors, create a permanent requirement for railroads to operate with at least two-person crews and increase fines for wrongdoing by rail carriers.

There’s a rail reform bill that has some different language in the House, introduced last week by U.S. Reps. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, whose district includes East Palestine, and Emilia Strong Sykes, D-Akron.

In Congress, bipartisan support for reform doesn’t always result in meaningful legislation being passed.

During Thursday’s Senate hearing, Vance, who serves on the committee, got Shaw to commit to wayside bearing detectors though the CEO said: “We’re not sure what the correct spacing is. It could be 10 miles or could be 15, could be seven. And I would support using science and research and whatever is the right number. We would space wayside detectors in that manner.”

Wayside detectors scan passing trains to detect possible safety issues and send emergency alerts to train operators when a defect is detected.

Vance also got a commitment, though no specifics, from Shaw on supporting mandatory first responder notifications.

Pressed by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., about what parts of the Senate bill he opposed, Shaw would only respond with what he supported.

Much later in the hearing, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas and the ranking minority member, said some parts of the bill “give me concern” such as giving too much power to the U.S. Department of Transportation. He asked Shaw’s opinion on that and the CEO seemed to agree with Cruz.

Ian Jeffries, CEO of the Association of American Railroads, which is main lobbying group of the freight rail industry, said his organization hasn’t taken a position on the bill.

“Frankly, there’s a feasible path on almost every provision in the bill,” he said. “Your definition of feasible and mine may not be the same.”

Jefferies laughed while making the comment.

Remember, he is a lobbyist.

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