New Jersey lawmakers look to limit ‘high hazard’ freight trains

Environmentalists, labor unions applaud staffing minimums, length limits, and other proposed safety measures

By: - November 28, 2023 6:49 am

A passing freight train stops traffic in Montgomery Township, N.J. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

New Jersey lawmakers are considering legislation intended to make “high hazard” freight trains safer by requiring two-person crews, capping train length, and mandating trackside technology to detect defects on passing trains.

The Senate’s transportation committee held a hearing Monday on the bill, which also would set deadlines and protocols for rail companies to follow if a spill occurs, direct state environmental officials to annually obtain railroad bridge inspection reports, require rail companies to clearly display their names on trains, and create new fees for violations.

Committee members did not vote on the bill. It’s unlikely to pass this legislative session, which ends Jan. 9, but its sponsors said they’ll reintroduce it in the next session.

similar proposal is moving slowly through Congress, as well as Pennsylvania.

Sen. Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), the state bill’s prime sponsor and the committee’s chairman, said state policymakers can’t wait on federal legislation that might not pass.

“New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the country. This is a catastrophe waiting to happen,” Diegnan said. “Safety has to be the number one priority.”

As more goods move by rail, ensuring train safety has become increasingly important, said Sen. Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen), another prime sponsor of the bill and a transportation committee member.

“New Jersey is a warehouse state, because of Port Newark/Port Elizabeth, and a lot of rail comes out of there, with consumer goods going to other parts of the region,” Johnson said.

Several industry groups submitted written opposition to the bill, including the New Jersey Railroad Association, New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, and Chemistry Council of New Jersey, Diegnan said.

But everyone who testified at the committee hearing Monday supported it.

Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, reminded lawmakers of catastrophic freight train accidents, including a 2012 derailment in Paulsboro that released toxic vinyl chloride, February’s fiery derailment of a South Jersey-bound freight train in East Palestine, Ohio, that displaced thousands, and another derailment last week in Kentucky that sparked a chemical fire and forced mass evacuations.

“We can’t just assume that this is going to be someone else’s disaster, that this will happen to somebody else,” O’Malley said. “Let’s not wait for the next disaster to be here in New Jersey again.”

Policymakers and the public can’t rely on railroad companies, which are profit-driven, to voluntarily adopt safety measures, he added.

“Norfolk Southern, the corporation responsible for East Palestine, spent three times as much on their corporate buybacks than on safety last year,” O’Malley said. “We need lawmakers to continue to lead the way on increasing responsibility. We should not depend solely on the private market; we see that failure occur.”

The bill’s supporters — primarily environmentalists and labor unions — especially applauded the bill’s provision limiting train length to 8,500 feet, which is just over a mile and a half.

Most freight trains now fall under that limit, but some “long trains” can stretch over 14,000 feet, according to the Association of American Railroads. Freight trains tend to move at slow speeds, so long trains can block access to communities for a long time, which is a serious concern, especially for first-responders, said Ray Vigil, chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen.

“The longer the train, the higher the risk. The longer the train, the more crossings that are blocked for long periods of times, in many cases, sometimes two and a half hours or three hours,” Vigil said.

Vigil also cheered a bill provision that would require wayside defect detectors, technology that flags problems with passing trains such as hot wheel bearings, excessive height or weight, shifted loads, and dragging equipment. Such detectors were present and signaled a problem with the freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, although the engineer did not stop the train.

Art Vatsky, a Teaneck resident and member of the Coalition to Ban Unsafe Oil Trains, told lawmakers he has lived within 1,000 feet of a rail line for 37 years.

“I favor two-person crews the same as I favor two-person pilots in airlines,” Vatsky said. “Would anyone fly with a plane worth millions of dollars with one pilot? Pilots are human. Pilots get sick. Pilots have heart attacks. Pilots have emotional problems. We need two engineers on these cars, on these trains.”

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.