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Transcript of U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg Remarks at Announcement of Safe Train Crew Size Final Rule - Washington, DC

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Well, Thanks very much, David. I'll be more popular at home with my two-year-old son, now that he knows that I've been standing with firefighters today. And I want to recognize so many of the workers who are represented here, who have been fighting for safe crew sizes for some time.  

We are proud to stand with the workers of America’s supply chains, American railroading, American infrastructure, and America's first responders. And that's true, not just in the context of today's wins, but in the context of what it takes every day. Because I know by the time I've gotten up, fed the dog, poured out some cereal or fried an egg, and gotten in the vehicle to head to work, there's already about 10 or 20 different things that I have touched or handled or counted on that are only there because of America's workers. 

So, it is the absolute minimum that our country could do to make sure that those workers are safe. And to the tens of thousands of Americans, from rail workers to families living near train lines, who spoke up and left comments supporting this proposed rule, I want to thank you because you helped bring us to today.  

Anyone who has served in the military knows the phrase, “Bottom Line Up Front,” so I will start with the Bottom Line Up Front. This is a good day for the safety of rail workers, rail passengers and every American who lives near a rail line all across this country because America's rails are safer today than they were yesterday. 

We're going to recognize that and celebrate that, but first, I want to take a moment and just talk about why this matters so much. Last week in Baltimore, we were reminded of what is at stake in the safety of our transportation systems. That it is literally about lives and about livelihoods. And safety is the number one reason why this Department of Transportation exists.  

You all know well what safety on our rails means. But for anybody following along from home, I want to make sure people understand how far we still have to go on railway safety. Last year, I visited East Palestine in Ohio to meet community members and see the site of that Norfolk Southern derailment firsthand. 

And a few months later, I met with rail workers in Nebraska after the explosion at the UP railyard in North Platte, which forced residents there to evacuate their homes. Administrator Bose was in Pueblo, Colorado at the site of BNSF Railway coal train derailment. 

In 2023, America saw seven rail-related employee-on-duty deaths and 46 employee-on-duty major injuries across all railroads. And 2023 was not an outlier or a fringe exception. America averages more than one train derailment per day for as long as I’ve been alive. That status quo is not acceptable, nor is it inevitable. 

The rate of derailments in this country is not pre-ordained. That's something we know from experience, because when good safety rules have been put in place over the years, especially after high profile incidents, we see derailments come down on main line tracks. 

But as attention faded on those incidents, the railroad industry lobby was consistently able to weaken or delay important safety provisions. Sometimes through legislation in Congress, sometimes by watering down regulations, sometimes getting a regulatory process frozen entirely, like what happened under the previous administration.  

Since Day 1 of the Biden Administration, we have been working to improve rail safety and keep workers and community safe. Through the President's bipartisan infrastructure package, we awarded billions of dollars to modernize rail infrastructure and improve dangerous highway rail crossings across the country.  

Our Federal Railroad Administration has completed 7,500 focused inspections along the routes of high-hazard, flammable trains. We have issued safety advisories and advanced new policies to address tank car types, train lengths, hazmat spills, and worker fatigue and protections that workers need. We also know that rail workers are safest when they are not stretched too thin. So, it's another reason why I'm so proud to welcome so many rail workers here to the DOT today. 

Almost 90% of Class I rail union…rail workers now have paid sick days thanks to the work of you all and your unions, who reached agreements with the railroads, and through the leadership of President Biden. And we're proud of our contributions in this Department to make it a priority to support those efforts, because just about a year and a half ago, it was 5% who had sick leave. Now we're at 89%, and we're going to keep pushing for that other 11% until it gets to 100%.  

And we know that a big part of ensuring safety is ensuring that there is enough staff on board to safely operate the train and respond when something happens. And that's what brings us here today. 

These railroad corporations have, in some cases, begun using trains that are a multiple of the length that they used to be. Some of these trains running through communities are about three miles long. For perspective, if you put the Empire State Building on its side and then added 11 more Empire State buildings, that's about how big some of these trains would be. And they want to operate that with one person. Certainly can't imagine operating one Empire State Building with one person, and it doesn't move. It defies common sense, and that changes today. 

So, on behalf of the Biden Administration, our Department is proud to issue this final rule requiring safe crew sizes for every train across America, and we're excited to celebrate that with you. 

That means we finally have a general provision establishing minimum crew size for trains that should and from now on must have at least two crew members. 

A second crew member is vital to performing safety functions like securing a train with hand brakes, handling track switches that are not remotely controlled, obtaining track authorities, assisting in emergencies, and much more. 

Americans across the country commented on this rulemaking, including railroad workers who know firsthand why this rule is so important. 

Many described how the conductor and the engineer work together to help each other avoid dangerous situations and prevent accidents. One worker said asking a person to run a train alone for 12+ hours is like a kind of solitary confinement that will inevitably lead to fatigue. One worker said, “We must have two-person train crews to stay alive in this job by looking out for each other,” which is what America’s railroad workers do. 

And workers described how when a train is blocking a road, which is a huge headache that we hear about again and again in communities, having a second crew member can also be helpful towards clearing that issue and moving more quickly or even, where necessary, cutting the train to unblock across it. I know that people have been urging this Department to address safe crew sizes for over 10 years. President Obama started a rule-making process, but the process was then frozen during the Trump Administration.  

But safe crew size was a priority for President Biden. And under his leadership, we resumed work in this area and a new rule was introduced, which is now complete and final.  

Before this rule, a railroad could unilaterally decide to just operate with one crew member without needing to check in with us. With this rule, we will allow special approval if, and only if, a requesting railroad can show to us that their circumstances mean a one-person crew will be no less safe. But I expect those cases to be the exception, not the rule. And that's not just a saying now, because we actually have a rule.  

Communities and workers will have the opportunity to weigh in. Communities and workers will have the opportunity to weigh in before there is any determination from the FRA.  

This rule is also going to address the patchwork of differing, uncoordinated requirements that have been developing across the states, with some governors of both parties doing the right thing while others caved to railroad lobbyists. 

You know, when they pushed against the rules of requiring two-person crews at the state level, one of the things the railroad lobby said was, “the federal government should be the one to make the rules, so there's uniformity across state lines.” So…here we go.  

This is a rule that is good for workers, it is good for communities, it is good for America's economy. And actually, I'm convinced that it is good for railroading writ large as well. But we know there's more to do.  

This rule alone will not prevent every incident or accident. So, we're going to keep pushing together on what we know that we can achieve from within this building. We're going to keep pushing industry to make the changes that they could make today, if they were willing. And we are going to keep pressing Congress to pass the Railway Safety Act. That's a bill that was introduced by bi-partisan leaders in the wake of East Palestine but has since been derailed by the railroad lobby and their allies in Congress.  

Some of the same Republican Representatives and Senators who were loudest in professing outrage over that derailment one year ago, are uncharacteristically avoiding comment right now, now that their votes are needed to pass this into law. This should be a completely bipartisan, non-partisan issue. And Congress must pass it into law. 

This is legislation that would phase in safer tank cars, require defect detectors, expand the list of hazardous materials that qualify for stricter safety precautions, but also increase the size of the fines that we can level against railroads so that they stop having any temptation to consider safety violations as a minor and manageable cost of doing business. 

So, everybody in Congress and the railroad industry, we invite you to join us in supporting the Railway Safety Act. And we invite you to join us in celebration of the rule that we are finalizing today.  

Everyone can choose safety. And I am certain that railroading can remain a stupendously profitable business while becoming a safer one as well.  

So let me end just again by welcoming and thanking everyone who is here and, most importantly, everyone that you represent, because every American counts on you, whether they realize it or not. 

And I want to thank you for your participation in this process, because we got over 13,000 comments on this rule. So many of them informed by your day-to-day experience. And by the way, about 99% of the individuals who commented on this rule were in favor of it. It is a good day when the voices of working people win today. And I'll say it happens on a lot more days in the Biden-Harris Administration. But it's still a really special thing to be able to celebrate today. You all changed the rules of the game today, and your fellow workers and fellow Americans are going to be safer because of it. 

So thank you again, and with that, I have the honor of turning it over to our Federal Rail Administrator, whose team at FRA along with so many in the Office of the Secretary and throughout this building have done so much to partner with voices across the sector to never let this go and to move sometimes administrative and bureaucratic mountains to make sure that common sense is the law of the land.  

So with great appreciation, let me turn it over to America's Federal Rail Administrator, Amit Bose.