William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
I’ll attempt to be brief: Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has signed into state law a $13.5 billion state transportation budget that includes rail safety legislation largely pre-empted by federal law, or moot. What is he thinking, and what “experts” are advising him?
Most of the money in the bill—no surprise—is earmarked for bridges and highway projects over the next two years. But there are a few measures obviously included as a purely political response to Norfolk Southern’s East Palestine derailment. Two examples:
• The state legislation mandates wayside HBDs (hot bearing detectors) be installed in “shorter” intervals of 10 to 15 miles apart, with oversight from the Ohio Department of Transportation and the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO). An Associated Press news report on the legislation said that “the Federal Railroad Administration allows some wayside detectors to be spaced up to 25 miles apart.” Wrong! HBDs are voluntarily deployed by railroads and are not federally regulated. The industry is already doing what DeWine signed into “law.” NS, for example, has implemented a safety plan that directly addresses HBD type (infrared or acoustic) and spacing, among other measures.
• The state legislation mandates two-person freight train crews. Nice try! Crew size is not federally legislated; it is determined by contract negotiations between railroads and rail labor (collectively or individually), thus rendering moot any state “laws.” Given that there are no federal crew size regulations, a state can act—once a contract expires, depending upon the number of workers in a crew district and other factors, and railroads can argue a strong case that a state’s attempt to legislate crew size would be an impediment to interstate commerce.
“We are ensuring that Ohio’s railroads follow the best practices in monitoring the railroad equipment and holding them responsible for their actions,” DeWine said. Again, politics in play. And according to the AP report, “State lawmakers say the General Assembly can put statewide safeguards in place to help protect constituents.”
They can, but again, federal regulations pre-empt anything a state may attempt, and the absence of such regulations renders most, if not all, state initiatives moot.
My take is that DeWine’s vintage politics will eventually ferment into vinegar. It’s already leaving a sour taste in the mouths of railroaders worth their salt.