PITTSBURGH − May 19, 2023 – State Senator Katie Muth (D-Chester/Montgomery/Berks), Chair of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, today joined Senator Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny) and Senator Wayne Fontana (D-Allegheny) to host a public hearing in Pittsburgh on railroad safety.
The hearing, held earlier today at the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers Local 400 Building in Pittsburgh, featured three panels of testimony that focused on unsafe practices in the railroad industry and how Pennsylvania can mitigate impacts of a train derailment.
“Many Pennsylvania families live within feet of a heavily traveled railroad – with freight trains moving at high speeds and containing hazardous contents at all hours of the day and night. As we’ve seen here in this region, there is a disaster waiting to happen,” Muth said. “The derailment that occurred in East Palestine shed light on how common derailments are and it put emphasis on emergency response, public safety, and worker safety. Today’s hearing allowed us to learn more about how Pennsylvania can be better prepared and how our legislature can act to enhance railroad safety and hold railroads accountable.”
According to data from the Federal Railroad Administration, there were more than 1,100 train derailments in the US in 2022 – an average of roughly three derailments per day. Railroad companies are only required to notify states about trains carrying large quantities of flammable liquids, not about chemicals that fall into the eight other classifications of hazardous materials.
“Empowering rail workers to operate trains safely and protecting those workers when they report health or safety problems isn’t just the right thing to do—it will save lives and prevent catastrophic accidents,” Williams said. “Pennsylvania can be a leader in protecting our people, our communities, and our environment by enacting strong whistleblower protections for all employees working within our borders.”
According to data from the Association of American Railroads, Pennsylvania has the most operating railroad companies of any state and includes the third most total rail miles in the country – over 5,200 miles. The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) indicated that at present, they lack statutory authority to direct railroads to implement recommendations to improve rail safety.
“I understand that Pennsylvania’s governmental authorities are virtually powerless when it comes to enforcement and regulating railroads which is unfortunate since the commonwealth has the largest number of railroad companies in the United States,” Fontana said. “I am optimistic that after holding this hearing and listening to the recommendations of the panelists, we now have what our options are as a commonwealth to move forward with improving railroad safety in the state.”
Participants in today’s hearing included Randy Padfield, Director, Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA); Paul Pokrowka, Pennsylvania State Legislative Director, Sheet Metal, Air, Rail & Transportation Union; Stephen DeFrank, Vice Chairman, Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC); Brian Moore, Emergency Response Director, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP); Don Bialosky, Emergency Response Program Manager, DEP; Tim Leech, Pittsburgh Firefighters; and Dr. Andrew Whelton, Professor of Civil, Environmental, and Ecological Engineering, Purdue University.
“Today’s hearing about the railroad industry in Pennsylvania was an important part of an ongoing conversation, and I want to thank the testifiers who offered thoughtful, thorough answers to our questions,” Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) added. ‘I look forward to learning more about what we can do in Harrisburg to continue fighting for the safety of every Pennsylvanian.”
All submitted testimony from the policy hearing and the full video is available at SenatorMuth.com/Policy