At a Wednesday hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Norfolk Southern‘s CEO Alan Shaw evaded questions about the company’s support for safety requirements included in the bipartisan Rail Safety Act of 2023.

The Rail Safety Act sponsored by U.S. Senators JD Vance (R-OH) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) would require that trains carrying hazardous materials be scanned by wayside defect detectors, or “hotbox detectors,” every 10 miles to prevent future derailments caused by faulty wheel bearings. It stipulates that railroad companies must provide advance notification to state emergency response commissions when transporting hazardous materials. It requires railroads to operate with at least two-person crews. It also, increases the maximum fine for rail safety violations.

According to Vance, even though Norfolk Southern declared earlier this month that it was adding more sensors to its rails, Vance says that they must add enough of them to find defective equipment

“Hot bearing detectors must be added to the network, and they must be added in sufficient frequency to detect failing equipment,” Vance said.

When asked by Vance to comment on his support for a mandatory standard for hot-box detectors Shaw did not directly answer the question and rather said that he does not know what the correct spacing for sidetrack detectors is.

“I would support using science and research and whatever is the right number,” Shaw said.

According to Ohio legislative director with SMART’s Transportation Division Clyde Whitaker, prior to the East Palestine train derailment he had filed a complaint with the Federal Railroad Administration for unsafe practices by Norfolk Southern.

According to Whitaker the company was giving instructions to crews to disregard wayside detector failures.

“This meant that the trains were not being inspected as intended, and that the crews were not able to ascertain the integrity of their trains,” Whitaker said.

When asked by U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) three times if he will support legislation requiring two man rail crews Shaw said that he is unaware of any data that links crew size with safety but that “we’ll commit to using research and technology to ensure the railroad operates safely.”

“We’re a data-driven organization, and I’m not aware of any data that links crew size with safety,” Shaw said.

“I think your not answering the question it’s almost like the last hearing all over again,” Markey said.

However, Whitaker said the derailment would “absolutely” have been worse if only one engineer was on the train.

Shaw did not address the provision of the Railway Safety Act which increases fines for safety violations.

Shaw did however note when asked by Vance that he “certainly would” support the Rail Safety Act’s stipulation that railroad companies must provide advance notification when transporting hazardous materials.

Shaw’s reluctance to directly answer if he supports some of the provisions in the Rail Safety Act comes after Ohio Governor Mike DeWine wrote to him on Tuesday calling on him to support the legislation as a way of demonstrating his commitment to East Palestine.

“It is our expectation that you will champion all good faith efforts to improve rail safety, and we are calling on you today to work with legislators to ensure the best possible policy outcomes in these proposals. We also expect you will deliver for the people of East Palestine by fully supporting these legislative efforts until they are enacted,” DeWine said.

When pushed by U.S. Senator Peter Welch (D-VT) numerous times as to if the East Palestine derailment was preventable and who was responsible for preventing it Shaw reluctantly admitted that the derailment was preventable but dodged questions about who was responsible for preventing it and how it could have been prevented.

“We are responsible for safety on our network and working within the entire industry to enhance safety,” Shaw said.

Watch the hearing:

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Hannah Poling is a lead reporter at The Ohio Star and The Star News Network. Follow Hannah on Twitter @HannahPoling1. Email tips to [email protected].
Image “Alan Shaw” by J.D. Vance Press Office.