5 April 2023
A new proposal heard by lawmakers this week could set the maximum length of a train running through Nevada to just 7,500 feet, or just over 1.4 miles, a move that comes amid a rash of high-profile train derailments — including a devastating chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio in February.
Sponsored by the Assembly Committee on Growth and Infrastructure, AB456 would look to cut down on the size of trains that can often reach or exceed 3 miles long and weigh more than 60 million pounds — “monster trains” that bill proponents argued are more difficult to crew and maintain, more easily spur delays and are more prone to mechanical failures. No such limits on train length exist under federal law.
“Just to give you an idea of these forces, we are seeing some cars, in certain scenarios, literally ripping in half like a cracked egg,” Gabe Christenson, a freight railroad and conductor, told the committee during a hearing Tuesday.
Twenty-seven trains derailed in Nevada between 2021 and 2022, including a six-month period in 2022 that saw nine derailments, according to research from the Legislative Counsel Bureau presented Tuesday. Notably, in 2019, a train carrying military small arms and hand grenades as well as hazardous materials derailed in eastern Nevada, briefly shutting down Interstate 80, even though no hazardous material or munitions were spilled.
More recently, at least two trains have derailed near the Nevada border, including a train carrying corn syrup through Arizona on March 15. Last week, another train carrying iron ore near Baker, California caught fire after it derailed.
Under a proposed amendment, the bill would also include provisions mandating that train crews be notified when defect detection equipment triggers an alert for overheating brakes or other failures, as well as mandating defect detectors at every 10 or 15 miles of railroad, depending on the terrain.
The amendment was cast as a necessary safety function that would avoid an East Palestine-style derailment, where trackside detectors owned by the operator, Norfolk Southern, caught spiking brake temperatures 20 miles before the train derailed. Separately, a report from ProPublica in February found that Norfolk Southern company policy allowed crews to ignore such warnings under certain conditions.
Proponents — chiefly from railroad worker unions and other labor groups — also raised concerns over a sharp increase in job cuts for rail companies nationwide, especially in the inspection and maintenance of trains and in conductor training. Those cuts, coupled with longer working hours and worsening working conditions, nearly led to the first nationwide rail worker strike in decades earlier this year.
“We’ve seen an increase in rail accidents and derailments, there is fear amongst the workforce,” Ron Kaminkow, a Reno-based locomotive engineer, told the committee. “Hardly a day goes by I don’t talk to somebody, especially in the train and engine craft, who just does not feel safe any longer, working for the railroad.”
Kaminkow also pointed to a spike in train delays and shipment embargoes emerging from “snarled and entangled and encumbered” railways, all while major rail operators have enjoyed record profits and soaring stock prices.
Lawmakers have previously sought to boost rail safety in Nevada, including a 2019 bill that reinstated a minimum crew size for trains of at least two people. That effort, which passed along party-lines before being signed by Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, followed a 2017 push to establish a minimum crew size that was vetoed by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval.
But in testifying in opposition to AB456, representatives from Union Pacific Railroad raised the possibility that a limit on train length could run afoul of the U.S. Constitution, in part by violating the Commerce Clause.
That argument hinged largely on a 1945 case, Southern Pacific v. Arizona, in which the Supreme Court struck down an Arizona limit on freight and passenger cars expressly because it violated federal supremacy on interstate commerce regulations.
“A bill like 456 would restrict the flow of commerce into and out of Nevada and impact customers and consumers who rely on a robust supply chain to deliver needed commodities,” Peggy Ygbuhay, head of Union Pacific public affairs in Nevada and California, said. “Increased train length did not occur overnight and it is the result of significant work and technological learning over the past decade.”
Still, it was unclear on Tuesday how lawmakers may handle the potential legal challenges.
Bill proponents countered, for instance, that interpreting regulations on railroad safety as constitutional violations of the commerce clause would effectively preempt any state-level regulation on rail safety, and that a 1970 federal law on rail safety has already acknowledged that state-level safety regulations could create economic ripple effects.
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