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Norfolk Southern is 1st big freight railway to let workers use anonymous federal safety hotline

By JOSH FUNK, Associated Press
Published: January 29, 2024, 12:49pm

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — About 1,000 engineers and conductors who work for Norfolk Southern will soon be able to report safety concerns anonymously through a federal system without any fear of discipline.

Norfolk Southern is the first of the six major freight railroads to follow through on promises made in the wake of last year’s fiery eastern Ohio derailment to join the Federal Railroad Administration’s program. The one-year pilot agreement is limited to members of just two unions who work in Atlanta, Georgia; Elkhart, Indiana; and Roanoke, Virginia.

But federal officials who urged the railroads to do more to improve safety touted the agreement Monday as a breakthrough coming just days before Saturday’s one-year anniversary of the disastrous Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that prompted temporary evacuations, a $1 billion and counting cleanup and lingering questions about long-term health consequences for residents in the area near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.

“Norfolk Southern has taken a good first step, and it’s time for the other Class I railroads to back up their talk with action and make good on their promises to join this close call reporting system and keep America’s rail network safe,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said.

The major freight railroads have resisted joining the anonymous reporting system because they wanted the ability to discipline workers who use the hotline in certain circumstances. The Association of American Railroads trade group has said railroads were worried that the system could be abused by workers who try to avoid discipline by reporting situations a railroad already knows about.

Unions and workplace safety experts countered that the idea of disciplining workers who report safety concerns undermines the entire purpose of such a hotline because workers won’t use it if they fear retribution. Experts say programs like the one overseen by the Federal Railroad Administration are especially important in industries where there is a long history of workers being fired for reporting safety violations or injuries.

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw said he hopes his railroad’s agreement to join the reporting system will set an example for the rest of the industry. Shaw has been focused on improving safety and service at Norfolk Southern ever since the East Palestine derailment.

“NS is proud to partner with our labor leaders and FRA to make another industry-leading advancement in safety,” Shaw said.

Officials with the unions that signed onto the deal — the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers — praised the agreement and urged the other major freight railroads to join.

“For far too long the large railroads and their trade association, The Association of American Railroads, have paid lip service to safety,” BLET First Vice President Mark Wallace said. “The AAR prefers to spend millions of dollars on television commercials bragging about safety while backtracking on safety agreements.”

Amtrak and several dozen small railroads use the government reporting program, but none of the big freight railroads have signed on to it so only about 32,000 rail workers are covered. The big freight railroads, which include Union Pacific, CSX, Canadian National, CPKC and BNSF, collectively employ more than 100,000.

The railroads have said part of why they resisted joining the federal program is because they believe their own internal reporting systems are sufficient. But railroad unions have consistently said workers are reluctant to use the railroads’ own safety hotlines because they fear retribution.

The head of the SMART-TD conductors’ union Jeremy Ferguson said this agreement at Norfolk Southern “will allow our members to speak up when they see unsafe conditions without fear of negative repercussions.”

The railroad trade group has said that a similar safety hotline used in the aviation industry allows workers to be disciplined if they report the same safety violation more than once in a five-year period. The railroads have been pushing for a similar rule for their industry.