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Safety board considering rail industry investigation

Senate leader called for industrywide probe after congressional hearings on Norfolk Southern derailment

“The Senate deserves explanations; Americans and communities like East Palestine want answers," said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer.
“The Senate deserves explanations; Americans and communities like East Palestine want answers," said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy said the federal investigative panel is considering Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer‘s request to probe safety regulations at all the major rail companies.

The request from Schumer, D-N.Y., followed a Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that leaked hazardous chemicals into the community’s air, soil and water in early February. The NTSB is currently investigating Norfolk Southern as part of the derailment inquiry. 

Schumer sent a letter to Homendy last week urging the board to expand its investigation to all Class I railroads, including giants like BNSF Railway, CSX and Canadian Pacific, with the goal of improving rail safety across the country.

“A full investigation could tell us which of [the derailments] occurred because of tracks that were degraded or … which policies contributed to the 2,700 deaths in recent years and if any of these could have been prevented,” Schumer said on the floor Wednesday. “The Senate deserves explanations; Americans and communities like East Palestine want answers.”

Schumer’s request is yet another call from both Democrats and Republicans to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for the derailment, creating unique bipartisanship over federal regulation and oversight of companies. In the Senate, Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown and Ohio Republican J.D. Vance introduced a rail safety bill aimed at ramping up regulations and fines for safety violations. 

And they vehemently defend the bill. Vance attacked Norfolk Southern and others in the industry during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing Wednesday on rail safety for criticizing regulations set out in the bill. Homendy was also present at the hearing.

“You cannot, on the one hand, beg the government to bail you out of a labor dispute three months ago and then say that it’s ‘big government’ to have proper safety standards,” Vance said, referring to congressional passage of a rail union agreement in November during the hearing. “It’s a ridiculous argument. It doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Homendy said Wednesday after the hearing that the board is considering Schumer’s request to expand the investigation and added that she will need to continue conversations with him to get more clarity about questions outlined in the letter.

An NTSB staffer confirmed that Homendy is hoping to respond to the letter “in the near future,” although the staffer did not include any other details about the response.

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