Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign, said Trump was speaking more generally about regulatory changes being falsely blamed for the derailment of 38 train cars, including 11 carrying hazardous materials, in East Palestine on Feb. 3. Biden administration officials have strongly suggested that the Trump administration buckled under pressure from rail industry lobbyists, laying the groundwork for an accident.
We decided to examine every possible regulatory change made under Trump that could be related to the accident and assess whether it could have made an impact. A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the incident, said the Norfolk Southern crew received an alert about an overheated wheel bearing and was trying to slow the train before it came off the tracks.
From our analysis, none of the regulatory changes made during the Trump administration at this point can be cited as contributing to the accident.
Electronically controlled pneumatic brakes
On long trains, these “ECP” brakes, which use electronic signals along the length of a train, are considered superior to an older braking system that uses compressed air to individually stop each car. The Trump administration in 2017 repealed an Obama-era rule that would have required ECP brakes on “high hazard” trains that carry flammable hazardous materials. A Government Accountability Office report had cast doubt on the Transportation Department’s estimates of the benefits from the requirement.
The GAO study was a requirement included, at the behest of industry, in a 2015 law signed by Obama, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, after dozens of trains hauling oil and ethanol crashed. The accidents included one in 2013 in Quebec that killed 47 people and destroyed the town of Lac-Megantic. The Trump DOT determined that revised estimates found the costs outweighed the benefits. The Associated Press later discovered that the DOT estimate had miscalculated the potential benefits — what officials claimed at the time was an “unintentional error.” Even with a correction, the department still said the costs outweighed the benefits.
The Biden administration has not acted to reinstate the rule, which would have gone into effect starting in 2021 if Trump had not shelved it.
Relevance to derailment: Minimal. The train was not equipped with ECP brakes; instead its air brakes used dynamic braking — electric traction motors acting as generators, which slow the train and dissipate mechanical energy as heat. When the crew received the alert about the overheated wheel bearing and engaged the dynamic brake, an automatic emergency brake application kicked in to stop the train, the NTSB said. That’s a full application of a train’s main air brakes that takes place when the train senses that air-brake hoses between rail cars have been disconnected — indicating the train had already derailed.
NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy said on Twitter that the repealed rule was not relevant to the accident. “The ECP braking rule would’ve applied ONLY to HIGH HAZARD FLAMMABLE TRAINS. The train that derailed in East Palestine was a MIXED FREIGHT TRAIN containing only 3 placarded Class 3 flammable liquids cars,” she wrote. “This means even if the rule had gone into effect, this train wouldn’t have had ECP brakes.”
But Cynthia Quarterman, who helped write the rule as administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration during the Obama administration, told The Fact Checker that if the rule had not been delayed and then shelved, she believes ECP brakes might have been widely adopted by industry and could have ended up on this train.
The Trump administration in 2020 issued a rule that extended how much time a freight rail train could be parked with its air brake system depressurized before requiring a new brake inspection. The rule permitted U.S. trains to be off air for as long as 24 hours, similar to the rule in place in Canada since 2008; before the rule change, the limit was four hours. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) estimated the change would result in 110,000 fewer brake inspections, saving the industry $500 million over 10 years.
Relevance to derailment: Unclear. There is no determination yet that the braking system played a role in the accident.
Two-person crew requirement
After the Lac-Megantic crash, which had only one crew member on the train, the Obama administration in 2016 proposed a rule to require two-person crews on all trains. The Trump administration withdrew the proposal in 2019, saying “no direct conclusions could be drawn about train crew staffing’s safety impact” on Lac-Megantic or other accidents. The Biden administration has said it will seek to revive the rule.
Relevance to derailment: None. The 149-car train that derailed had two crew members plus a trainee on board.
Minimum rail safety requirements
The Trump administration in 2020 revised minimum safety requirements for railroad track, which among other measures allowed for quicker inspections.
Relevance to derailment: None. The NTSB inspected the tracks, and the preliminary report makes no mention of any problem.
The FRA regulates the safety of railroad tracks, and railroad companies are responsible for maintaining and inspecting tracks. Under the Obama administration, the FRA in 2015 began audits known as the Crude Oil Route Track Examination (CORTEx) program, which sent dozens of additional inspectors to specific regions to conduct track inspections along crude oil routes. The last audit was in 2018, and the program was not renewed for the rest of the Trump administration.
In 2021, the Biden administration launched a different audit program that focused on railroad companies, beginning with Union Pacific Railroad.
Relevance to derailment: None. In 2022, FRA conducted an audit of Norfolk Southern, the company involved in the Ohio incident, and made a number of recommendations for improvement. “FRA observed inconsistencies in NS’s operational testing and inspection program, ranging from access to and accuracy of records, to the methods and processes used to prioritize the testing of rules that prevent accidents,” the audit said. “The failure to properly administer and implement the program of operational testing can diminish the capacity to correct accident/incident and injury trends.”
Deregulation of ethylene oxide
The Trump administration, bowing to industry pressure, ignored federal scientists and adopted weaker standards for regulating emissions of ethylene oxide, a hazardous air pollutant that could pose a risk of lymphoid and breast cancer. The Biden administration has said it would reconsider the rule.
Ethylene oxide is used to manufacture ethylene glycol, a toxic chemical used in hydraulic brake fluids, antifreeze, inks and paints. Ethylene glycol, generally a clear, syrupy liquid, was found near the derailment site.
Relevance to derailment: None. The rule concerned emissions by chemical plants, not the synthetic chemical released in the accident.
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