Lawmakers renew calls for rail safety reforms after Pa.’s latest train derailment

The Montgomery County accident has intensified the attention of state and federal officials

By: - July 18, 2023 9:56 am

The scene of the July 17 train derailment in Montgomery County (Lokman Vural/Andalou Agency/Via Getty Images/City & State Pa.).

By Justin Sweitzer

Several Pennsylvania officials are calling for action to tighten railroad safety laws after a CSX train derailed in Montgomery County early Monday morning.

The derailment occurred around 4:55 a.m. in Whitemarsh Township and involved 15 train cars, according to local emergency officials. While some of the cars contained urea, a liquid fertilizer, and tetrachloroethylene, an industrial degreaser and dry cleaning agent, officials stressed that no hazardous materials leaked out of the train.

“Train and hazmat personnel remained on-scene and determined that there was no active hazardous materials leak from any of the rail cars,” Barren Hill Volunteer Fire Co. Chief Chris Schwartz said. “One car that contained plastic pellets did break open and spilled next to the railway. These pellets were not hazardous.”

The derailment, which occurred on a Norfolk Southern rail line, prompted the evacuation of 12 homes, but the order was lifted just before 9:30 a.m. on Monday. Officials said no injuries were reported and that the cause of the derailment is under investigation.

CSX said in a statement that the cause of the derailment “appears to be weather-related.”

Representatives for Gov. Josh Shapiro, U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-4th District, and state Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia,  were present to assist with response efforts, according to Ken Lawrence, chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners.

This isn’t the first derailment to attract the attention of Pennsylvania officials this year. In the wake of a derailment that occurred in February along the Pennsylvania-Ohio border, legislators at the state and federal levels introduced legislation aimed at reducing the frequency of derailments.

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That Feb. 3. derailment, in East Palestine, Ohio, involved 50 cars, 20 of which contained hazardous material. A decision to intentionally burn vinyl chloride gas inside the trains to prevent an explosion provoked health and safety concerns among residents of both Ohio and Pennsylvania.

It also spurred lawmakers to get involved. Members of the state’s congressional delegation introduced a series of proposals following the February crash to try and limit derailments and improve safety.

Fetterman on Monday reiterated his call for Congress to act on the Railway Safety Act, which would increase the maximum allowable fines on rail carriers for violating safety requirements and would mandate that certain freight trains be manned by a two-person crew.

“This derailment in PA is just the latest sign that something HAS to change,” Fetterman said in a tweet. “Whether it’s Norfolk Southern, CSX, or the other big rail companies: putting profits over public safety must end.”

Lawmakers at the state level have also called for new rail safety measures. In June, the state House voted 141 to 62 to approve legislation that would limit the length of freight and work trains to 8,500 feet, establish a two-person crew requirement and create a reporting system for the transportation of hazardous materials.

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State Sen. Katie Muth, of Montgomery County, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committee, tweeted Monday that the Whitemarsh Township derailment underscored the need for reforms to the state’s rail laws.

“The train derailment in Montgomery County early this morning is yet another urgent warning of how critical it is that we move forward with improving railroad safety in the state,” Muth said in a tweet.

Data from the Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety Analysis shows that Pennsylvania recorded 14 derailments from January to April of this year – the last month for which full data is available.

In 2022, 34 derailments were reported in the state, while 46 derailments were reported in 2021. In 2020 there were 34 derailments in the state, according to the agency.

State Rep. Mary Jo Daley, who represents the area where Monday’s derailment happened, said in a statement that she was “relieved” to hear that no one was harmed by the derailment.

“Emergency response teams from the township, state and county were on the scene early this morning to inspect the site and ensure that no hazardous materials had spilled,” Daley, a Democrat, said. “Now, work remains to plan the removal of these freight cars from the scene safely.”

Justin Sweitzer is a reporter for City & State Pa., where this story first appeared

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