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Transportation Secretary Buttigieg pushes for stricter railroad safety standards

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When the head of Norfolk Southern testified before Congress yesterday, his message amounted to, we're sorry for the disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, and we'll fix it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALAN SHAW: Norfolk Southern runs a safe railroad, and it's my commitment to improve that safety and make our safety culture the best in the industry.

SHAPIRO: That was Alan Shaw, chief executive of the train company responsible for the derailment. Senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee weren't having it. Lawmakers from both parties attacked Shaw for refusing to endorse stricter regulations. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has been leading the Biden administration's push on those regulations, and he joins us again now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Hello - good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: When Norfolk Southern says it will rebuild its safety culture from the ground up and invest more, do you believe that?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, I appreciate the steps that they have committed to so far, but the biggest thing that I have asked them to do is to change course in resisting regulation. They and the entire freight railroad lobby have fought tooth and nail year after year on stricter standards. And I think the opportunity and the obligation before us right now, speaking not just for us as a department but for the country, including Congress, is to push that standard much higher when it comes to everything from the adoption of reinforced tank cars that are less likely to spill when there's a derailment or a crash to the way that railroad workers are treated. These are all things that - we know they're things that would be effective, and Norfolk Southern and the other freight railroads have resisted them time and time again.

So, you know, I'm glad to see more compensation going out to the people of East Palestine. They deserve to be taken care of in every possible way. Those are all welcome developments, but what we need is more than that. What we need is for them to get on board with a higher standard of enforceable safety regulations, and we're going to keep pushing for that.

SHAPIRO: You say Norfolk Southern and the entire freight rail lobby has resisted this. How much is this a Norfolk Southern problem versus a U.S. freight rail problem? That is, Norfolk Southern happened to have the most high-profile public disaster. One of their trains just derailed yesterday in Alabama. But could this just as easily have happened to any rail company?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, we're taking a close look at Norfolk Southern specifically and have launched a supplemental review of their safety practices and safety culture. But the reality is all of the major railroads, what are called the Class I freight railroads, have these problems and have a much higher rate of accidents, derailments, crashes, injuries and other issues than I think most Americans are aware of.

SHAPIRO: And you don't have reason to believe that Norfolk Southern is significantly worse than the others.

BUTTIGIEG: Well, again, if we find anything additional in our stepped-up review, that will be - that will lead to specific actions with regard to Norfolk Southern. But I would say that across each of the major Class I freight railroads, if you look at violations, if you look at derailments, you're going to see broadly comparable numbers.

SHAPIRO: You've said that right now there's a lot of momentum for positive change. But as we know, the country has a short attention span, and the process to implement new rules and regulations is long and winding and often influenced by industry. How do you make sure that this process doesn't get so drawn out that by the time something gets implemented, the rest of the country is no longer paying attention and industry is having the same impact it's had in the past?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, that's one of the reasons we've been working these kinds of issues before, during and after their moment in the public spotlight. On railroad safety, for example, stepped-up audits and improved regulations on things like minimum crew size - those are things we were working on when we got here as an administration. These added things are things we're going to push on. And we're going to keep pushing even if the coverage dies down because it's the right thing to do, the same way that we have been...

SHAPIRO: Is there a way to cut through the red tape, though?

BUTTIGIEG: I think there can be. I mean, look. We are subject to a lot of procedural requirements that slow down the process of things like creating a new regulation. But I would add that this is where Congress can come in, and we can get swift action from Congress that wouldn't force us to go through all of those steps that can take a year or more on the regulatory front. It's why we've urged Congress to take steps like encoding the requirements on higher hazmat standards, on the safety of these trains and cars. And the bipartisan legislation that has emerged in the Senate speaks to a lot of those priorities. It's not often you see that kind of bipartisan push in today's Washington. That's part of what gives me hope that we can, in fact, get swifter action this time around.

SHAPIRO: When you look at the action in Congress, on the one hand, you see lawmakers from both parties saying Norfolk Southern needs to do better. On the other hand, you see both parties trying to score political points from this situation. What do you think the actual likelihood is of Congress passing the kind of bill you're talking about?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, I would call this a put up or shut up moment. I'm certainly frustrated that some voices, mainly in the Republican Party in Congress who have been outspoken on the derailment generally, have not appeared willing to support the EPA, which is the main agency empowered to hold Norfolk Southern accountable, and have been hesitant to support the railroad regulations we're calling for. On the other hand, there are Republicans and Democrats joining on this legislation in the Senate. And, again, I think that's not a small thing. To me, if that continues along with continued push from our administration, which you can count on, and continued public pressure, I really think that big things are possible right now.

SHAPIRO: You've said that you made a mistake by not visiting the site of the crash earlier. The Guardian, a left-leaning newspaper, said your decision to wait three weeks, quote, "recalls the incompetence of FEMA during Hurricane Katrina." So what do you think you need to do now to regain trust going forward?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, let me be very clear. Our department responded to this issue in the first hours after the derailment. We were there from the beginning. And unlike those other cases that have been cited, nobody has pointed to a deficiency in terms of the readiness of this department, the presence of our staff and the functional role that we had. However, I do think that this was an opportunity to break from precedent a little bit, to break from the norm where you don't normally see transportation secretaries at crash sites, probably out of deference to the NTSB.

But we can do both. We can respect the independence of the NTSB but also break from tradition and have more of an on-the-ground presence because it's an opportunity to signal to communities impacted by these kinds of disasters and derailments how important they are and that they matter. But, again, at every step of the way, our agency has been there, doing its job. And our biggest job right now is to make and enforce good transportation policy that saves lives, which is exactly what we're doing and exactly what we're urging Congress to do with us.

SHAPIRO: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, thanks for talking with us.

BUTTIGIEG: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANZ FERDINAND SONG, "40 FT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
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