In Latest Work to Advance Rail and Hazmat Safety Efforts, USDOT Announces Safety Funding for First Responder Training and Response
Washington, DC -- In the latest action to improve safety in communities across the country, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced another round of investments in rail and hazardous materials safety. This comes on top of tens of millions of dollars made possible by President Biden’s infrastructure law that has been helping improve rail infrastructure and eliminate at-grade crossings.
On Monday, the USDOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) announced more than $25 million available in grant funding through its pipeline and hazardous materials safety programs. These grants will help train first responders, strengthen safety programs, improve general safety, reduce environmental impacts, and educate the public on local safety initiatives. This funding can provide support to state inspectors for hazardous materials shipments and pipelines inspections, important safety training and educational programs for emergency response, and advance innovative safety technologies.
In recent years thousands of responders nationwide have received training thanks to the Assistance for Local Emergency Response Training (ALERT) grant program, including 2,500+ responders in 137 different locations in Ohio. Several of those trained emergency responders were on the ground during the Norfolk Southern East Palestine derailment. In addition to this existing funding, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called on Congress to increase funding to expand hazardous materials training for first responders. Additional funding for first responders is part of the Bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023.
These announcements build on previous progress, including:
- Holding Norfolk Southern Accountable: USDOT’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is conducting a supplemental safety assessment of Norfolk Southern Railway following multiple safety incidents. The safety assessment will exceed the scope of existing FRA audits and take an expansive look at Norfolk Southern’s overall safety culture and operations. Further, FRA is supporting the NTSB-led investigation into the cause of the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine and will hold the railroad accountable for any safety violations.
- Bipartisan Legislation: The Senate proposal, endorsed by President Biden, includes provisions that Secretary Buttigieg called for in February as part of a three-part drive, such as significantly increasing fines on industry for safety violations, strengthening rules for trains carrying hazardous materials, increasing funding for hazmat training, accelerating the timeline to phase in more robust tank cars, and ensuring a two-person crew minimum on trains.
- Targeted Inspections: FRA announced focused inspections, starting with targeted track inspections in and around East Palestine on routes that carry large volumes of hazardous materials and expand nationwide.
- Rail Worker Confidential Safety Reporting Program: After Secretary Buttigieg pressed them, all seven Class I freight railroads have agreed to participate in the Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS) program for rail employees to help prevent safety issues.
- Meeting with Labor Leaders: USDOT leadership gathered leaders from unions representing tens of thousands of rail employees to hear safety concerns, both short- and long-term. USDOT's three-part approach includes a push to guarantee paid sick leave for all rail workers.
- Safety Advisory for Tank Car Covers: PHMSA acted on initial findings from the NTSB investigation into the Norfolk Southern derailment and issued a safety advisory notice for tank car covers.
- Safety Advisory for Hot Bearing Detectors: FRA urged railroads using hot bearing detectors (HBDs) to evaluate their inspection process, prioritize the proper training and qualification of personnel working with HBDs, and improve the safety culture of their organizations.
- Safety Advisory for Emergency Response Plans: PHMSA urged all railroad operators to create and maintain emergency response plans for the transport of hazardous materials, strengthen the accessibility of the AskRail system that provides real-time information on shipments to first responders, and inform PHMSA when they identify responders who are not able to access PHMSA’s grant-funded training. The full advisory can be found here.
- Safety Bulletin on Car Switching Hazards: FRA issued a Safety Bulletin to increase awareness of the hazards relating to switching cars. FRA is investigating a recent switching accident that resulted in a crewmember leg amputation.
- Emergency Breathing Apparatus NPRM: FRA issued a Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would require railroads to provide emergency escape breathing apparatus to train crews and other employees when transporting certain hazardous materials.
- Investments in Rail Safety: In the first year of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, FRA invested over $370M in safety improvements to physical infrastructure including nearly $190M for upgrades to tracks. Later this year, FRA will make awards for the new Railroad Crossing Elimination Program and the next round of the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) Program.
Additionally, the President’s FY 2024 Budget calls for an investment of over $1 billion to expand USDOT’s core rail safety efforts and improve critical infrastructure:
- $273.5 million to support the agency’s railroad safety personnel, expand critical inspection and audit capabilities, enhance data analysis to better identify the root causes of railroad safety incidents, and increase stakeholder outreach and partnerships to address and eliminate threats to public safety.
- $760 million for both the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) program and Railroad Crossing Elimination program to provide additional dedicated grant funding to improve nearly all facets of railroad safety, including upgrading track, rolling stock, and signal systems; supporting railroad employee safety training programs; and preventing railroad trespassing and highway-rail grade crossing collisions.
- $59 million for a cross-cutting Research & Development program to advance new technologies and practices to improve railroad safety.
The President’s FY 2024 budget is notably different from the deeply concerning budget proposal from the House GOP, which would cut rail safety funding, decrease rail safety inspections, and make our railways drastically less safe both for workers and communities across the country.
Investigators from USDOT’s FRA and PHMSA were on the ground within hours of the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3, 2023. The agencies are supporting the investigation being led by the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent agency. For more on the federal response and jurisdiction, see here.
To get the latest information on the investigation, please visit NTSB’s website.