Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg played up the agency’s new spending and actions aimed at improving rail safety and implementing regulations for freight operators in the wake of the East Palestine train derailment in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Speaking before the Senate Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Subcommittee on Thursday, Buttigieg stated that the department is seeking $273 million in new funding in its fiscal 2024 budget for rail safety, including increasing funding to support the Federal Railroad Administration, including by expanding its inspection capabilities, and taking steps to increase stakeholder engagement to address risks.
To date, he said, the DOT has made nearly $18 billion in funds available to improve rail service and safety and advanced more than 70 critical rail projects nationwide.
The department has also published a proposed rule to require trains to be staffed by a minimum of two crew members.
Still, Buttigieg, who has come under harsh criticism for what some have characterized as a slow and insufficient response to the Ohio train derailment, said that more needs to be done to improve rail safety.
Buttigieg said Thursday that while derailments are down compared to previous decades, the East Palestine disaster shows the status of rail safety is “clearly not acceptable.”
To that end, Buttigieg said the DOT has called on the rail industry “not to wait” for the government to finalize new safety guidelines and act on its own to implement safeguards.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the subcommittee, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), pressed Buttigieg over safeguards such as wayside detecting devices, which are installed along tracks and play a crucial role in detecting incidents before they occur.
In a preliminary report last month, the National Transportation Safety Board said the East Palestine derailment was likely caused by an overheated wheel bearing, as well as the failure of multiple wayside detectors, which did not alert rail operators about the overheated bearing until it was too late.
Historically, these wayside detector devices have not been regulated at the federal level, Buttigieg said, though he said the department is interested in working with Congress to help create more regulations and standards for these devices.
He said the DOT has seen regulations voluntarily deployed “by a number of railroads” in the last month.
But from a regulatory standpoint, he said, the DOT is “interested in working with Congress, as well as examining our existing authorities, to create more regularity and standardization about the use of these tools. Because we think they can play an important role in preventing crashes and derailments.”
Momentum for new regulations comes after a 150-car train derailed last month while carrying five toxic chemicals, which were released into the air, water, and soil as officials scrambled to avoid an explosion.
Gov. Mike DeWine (R-OH) called on Congress to change requirements for the hazardous material trains on Tuesday, noting that the failure to classify the Norfolk Southern train as a “high hazardous material” train prevented officials from knowing what dangerous chemicals the train was carrying.