The influence of rail companies on policymaking was thrust into the spotlight after a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3 while carrying toxic chemicals that could pose long-term health risks to residents. But the industry’s hold of the Congress goes beyond Norfolk Southern and its efforts to water down legislation addressing systemic safety issues.
In a letter to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw on Feb. 19, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigeig called to end the rail industry’s “vigorous resistance” to increased safety measures, which has included litigation and federal lobbying. Buttigeig hinted at a series of new regulations for the rail industry in his letter, saying “the future must not resemble the past.”
A bipartisan group of senators also introduced a new bill on Wednesday that would create new safety requirements for trains carrying hazardous materials, require trained two-person crews to work aboard every train and ramp up inspections and maximum fines.
The rail industry spent $653.5 million on federal lobbying over the past two decades, an OpenSecrets analysis found, with the biggest splurges occurring between 2008 and 2012 where the industry lobbied an act aiming to enforce antitrust laws on the freight railroad industry. Last year, the industry’s federal lobbying totaled $24.6 million, the lowest it spent over the past two decades, adjusted for inflation.
The industry’s top federal lobbyists remained constant during this 20-year period and includes the industry trade group Association of American Railroads, BNSF Railway’s parent company Berkshire Hathaway, CSX Corp., Union Pacific Corp. and Norfolk Southern being the largest spenders.
At the state level, the industry spent $60.3 million in lobbying between 2002 and 2022 in the 20 states OpenSecrets collects data on, with the top recipients being California, Texas and New York. In this time frame, the top company with disclosed lobbying at the state level was BNSF Railway, which spent $12.7 million since 2003. In 2022, railroad companies spent $3 million lobbying the 20 states.
Since the 2002 election cycle, the industry has contributed $85 million to federal candidates, political parties and outside spending groups, with the majority of contributions historically going to benefit Republicans. The biggest contributors were BNSF Railway, Union Pacific Corp., CSX Corp. and Norfolk Southern.
The rail industry’s federal political contributions totaled $5.4 million during the 2022 election cycle, the lowest since the 2002 cycle when adjusted for inflation, and nominally almost a 40% drop from the previous year.
In contrast, political contributions from the rail industry at the state level reached an all-time high in 2022 — $6.8 million, with BNSF Railway as the largest contributor. The rail industry has given at least $60.8 million in direct contributions to state candidates and committees since 2002, and the biggest contributors echoed those on the federal level.
“We support candidates whose views are consistent with our company’s public policy agenda and business issues,” a Union Pacific spokesperson told OpenSecrets in an email.
CSX Corp.’s media director Cindy Schild said, “Our political giving largely matches the political profile in states where we operate and Congress by percentage.” The freight railroad industry helps “the nation move safely forward by supporting job creation, combating climate change, investing private funds (not tax dollars) into our infrastructure and technology,” Schild added.
The Norfolk Southern PAC, to which the Atlanta-based company’s CEO and and his wife contributed almost $97,000 since 2008, steered $1.4 million to congressional candidates and other federal PACS during the 2022 election cycle. In an email to OpenSecrets, Norfolk Southern said these contributions were a fair and balanced process of political giving, and the CEO does not have day-to-day oversight or or individual decision-making authority over who received that money.
Also during the 2022 cycle, the BNSF Railway PAC gave $1.5 million, the Union Pacific Corp. PAC $1.8 million and CSX Corp. PAC $913,000. These federal contributions have historically gone mostly to Republican candidates and groups, though the Norfolk Southern PAC contributed slightly more to Democrats in the last election cycle.
BNSF Railway and Association for American Railroads did not respond to requests for comment.
An industry-wide problem?
“Corporations do stock buybacks, they do big dividend checks, they lay off workers,” Brown said. “Then they don’t invest in safety rules and safety regulations, and this kind of thing happens. That’s why people in East Palestine are so upset. They know that corporate lobbyists have had far too much influence in our government and they see this as the result.”
“There’s no question [Norfolk Southern] caused it with this derailment because … they underinvested in their employees. They never look out for their workers,” he added.
But record profits, prioritization of shareholder revenue over railway and operations investments and massive layoffs that came under scrutiny following the East Palestine derailment are not isolated to Norfolk Southern. Other large railroad corporations have also paid billions of dollars to their shareholders as they reported higher profit margins, while the industry recorded a decline in rail employment, according to Labor Department data. The industry has also been pushing towards wider automation, urging the Department of Transportation to cooperate in its regulatory approach.
One of the most heavily lobbied bills by the major railroad companies over the past two years is the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden in November 2021. Some of the federal statutes’ promises include “creating good-paying union jobs,” investing in passenger rail and modernizing freight infrastructure.
The railroad industry has also spent on lobbying to fight the Safe Freight Act, which aims to equip freight trains with a minimum of two crew members. The bill was introduced in the House in 2017 by late Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) “with the intent of reducing instances of train engineers and conductors being stretched too thin with operational duties,” according to Young’s press secretary at the time. Though Young reintroduced the bill in 2019, it never passed the House.
A closer look into Norfolk Southern and the electric brakes regulation
On Feb. 3, 38 of the Norfolk Southern 32N train’s 150 cars caught on fire after they derailed and plowed into each other. Eleven of the derailed cars carried hazardous materials, five of which were tankers containing vinyl chloride, a toxic flammable gas that can cause various types of cancer if inhaled.
Two days after the crash, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) ordered residents near the derailment site to evacuate the area, citing the “potential of a major explosion.” The next day on Feb. 6, officials authorized Norfolk Southern to do a “controlled release” and burn off the vinyl chloride. Since then, locals have reported sick and dead animals, large plumes of black smoke and experiencing burning sensations in their eyes.
Despite reassurances from authorities, residents remain concerned over health and environmental risks, and a number of community members have filed lawsuits against Norfolk Southern. The National Transportation Safety Board’s issued an investigation into the derailment and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration is conducting an analysis to determine whether any safety violations occurred, according to Buttigieg’s letter.
Less than two weeks after the East Palestine incident, another Norfolk Southern train derailed in Detroit, Mich., though the rail car containing hazardous material was not derailed. The number of hazmat cars involved in derailments has increased in recent years with 6,204 cars derailed while carrying hazardous materials in 2021, a staggering 339% jump from the number of incidents reported 35 years ago. Just this week, another train miles away from a Florida airport derailed while carrying propane, though no leakage was reported.
“We and the rail industry need to learn as much as we can from this event,” a Norfolk Southern statement from Feb. 23 said, pledging to “develop practices and invest in technologies that could help prevent an incident like this in the future.” The Association of American Railroads CEO also issued a statement saying they are ”committed to solutions-oriented steps that directly address the cause of the accident and could prevent a similar accident from occurring elsewhere.”
Before the most recent derailments, Norfolk Southern’s lobbying helped water down a federal safety law aimed at updating the industry’s Civil War-era air braking systems, which could have mitigated the accident’s level of harm, a report by Lever News found.
After a boom in oil-carrying train derailments, former President Barack Obama’s administration in 2014 proposed stricter rules for trains that transport petroleum and other hazardous materials. Issued in May 2015, the new regulation required trains carrying highly-flammable liquids, including crude oil and ethanol, to be equipped with special brakes, called electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, to stop all cars at the same time.
The rule was met with opposition from many industry stakeholders, and the Association of American Railroads, which also represents CSX Corp., Union Pacific Corp., Norfolk Southern and BNSF Railway said requiring these brakes “is not in the public interest.”
In December 2015, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act of 2015 was signed into law. Introduced to the House by former Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), the act required the analysis of the costs and benefits of the advanced electronic brakes. The FAST Act was among the top bills lobbied by the Association of American Railroads, Norfolk Southern and CSX Corp. in 2015 and 2016.
The Obama-era rule was repealed by former President Donald Trump’s administration in 2018. The Department of Transportation’s Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration concluded the new brakes were not “economically justified” and issued a final rule to remove the advanced brake system requirements from the hazardous materials regulations.
The Association of American Railroads applauded the repeal. Fully electric brakes could have reduced the severity of the East Palestine crash, an expert told Lever News.
In a letter addressed to seven of the largest railroad company CEOs on Feb. 17, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, requested detailed information about safety practices involved in rail transportation of hazardous materials.
“Thousands of trains carrying hazardous materials, like the one that derailed in Ohio, travel through communities throughout the nation each day,” Cantwell wrote. “Every railroad must reexamine its hazardous materials safety practices to better protect its employees, the environment, and American families and reaffirm safety as a top priority.”