LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — A catastrophic train crash that resulted in a toxic fire in East Palestine, Ohio, has state lawmakers considering limits to the size of trains allowed to run in Nevada.
An average of three derailments per day occurred in 2022, according to Tom Dunn, district vice president for Professional Fire Fighters of Nevada. That statistic has a lot of railroad workers and their union partners lining up in support of more stringent safety on Nevada rails.
Assembly Bill 456 (AB456) sets out a number of requirements for wayside detectors — or “hot boxes” — sensors that can reveal overheated axles or bearings, along with dragging equipment that could start a fire. The bill would require companies to use detectors that automatically alert crews to overheated equipment. The bill also seeks to solve the problem of trains blocking emergency vehicles at crossings.
“A state-by-state approach is not the best way to approach this issue or to improve safety,” according to Connie Roseberry, assistant vice president and Chief Safety Officer at Union Pacific.
AB456 also mandates that railroads — in Nevada, that means Union Pacific — run shorter trains. And that is a provision that the railroad argues against. That’s for the Federal Railroad Administration to decide, not states, Roseberry said.
A large portion of testimony on both sides of the bill at a Wednesday hearing of the Senate Committee on Growth and Infrastructure surrounded train lengths and derailments.
Longer, heavier trains are contributing to the problems that the public hears about, according to testimony in support of the bill. Gabe Christensen, a railroad conductor with 19 years experience, told Nevada lawmakers that train lengths these days are more than double the previous standards. Christensen said some trains are as long as 15,000 feet, and weigh 30,000 tons.
“The massive forces generated by these trains as they start, stop, slow down and speed up lead to metal fatigue in the couplings between cars and trackware, increasing the likelihood of derailments,” Christensen said.
And while it’s a nationwide concern — 14 states have proposed laws or regulations — Nevada is a unique battleground, according to Jason Doering, an experienced conductor.
“While Nevada may not seem like it, we hold some of the most treacherous terrain in the country as far as where our trains traverse. We have Donner Pass, and then on the southern part of the state we go through the Rainbow Canyon near Caliente. And then south of town through the Mojave Preserve on Cima Hill,” Doering said. He also serves as Nevada State Legislative Director for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers.
“Everyone, and I repeat everyone, is on the same side of reducing and ultimately eliminating derailments,” Union Pacific’s Roseberry said.
“However, policy actions and bad legislation taken reflexively are unlikely to achieve meaningful safety benefits — and worse, could have a wide range of unintended economic and environmental consequences as well as a negative impact on the free-flow of commerce across state lines,” Roseberry said.
“Mainline derailments are down almost 30% over the past two decades and over the past 10 years, reportable injuries on our railroad have been reduced by 27%, contributing to making the past decade the safest for the rail industry in the history of this nation,” she said.
The Ohio crash on Feb. 3 involved a Norfolk Southern train transporting hazardous chemicals. The crew got a warning from a hot box, but couldn’t stop the train before nearly 40 cars went off the tracks and caught fire. Half the town of East Palestine had to evacuate for days, and 300 workers were still at the site in late April.
Peggy Ygbuhay, senior public affairs director for Union Pacific, gave the railroad’s statistics for “reportable” derailments: one in 2023, five in 2022, three in 2021, six in 2020 and eight in 2019. She cited a 21% decrease since 2019.
A recent derailment involving a runaway train in the Mojave National Preserve on March 27 serves as an example, and the hearing was full of other examples of safey hazards:
- March 7, 2023: A train going from Elko to Portola, California, provides “an incident that mirrored what happened in East Palestine,” according to Christensen. Two wayside detectors sensed an overheated bearing, but the crew was never alerted. Five miles after the second detector, a bearing pack shot off, starting a fire in a yard and derailing multiple cars.
- Feb. 20, 2023: A train broke apart near Carlin. “The majority of the freight on that train was hazardous material,” Christensen said. “It broke in three spots right next to the Humboldt River in Carlin, Nevada.”
- Jan. 20, 2023: derailment near Winnemucca
- July 11, 2019: A train that derailed northeast of Las Vegas extensively damaged vehicles being transported and even closed a rural road.
Republican senators Scott Hammond and Ira Hansen questioned whether the bill should address the train length, leaving that issue to federal regulators.
Assemblyman Max Carter, (D-Las Vegas), pointed out that federal agencies are not immune to political agendas, and regulations at the federal level can be undone when a new president is elected.
In Las Vegas there are places where train crossings can block traffic. But it’s a bigger problem in small towns such as Carlin, where the rails split the town in two — the police station on one side and the fire department on the other.
But no matter where you live, the idea that waiting for a train to cross could delay emergency responders puts a lot of attention on the issue of how long trains are, and how long it takes them to clear a crossing.
As Roseberry ended her statement in opposition to AB456, she said a train-length law would not solve blocked crossings. “By potentially solving one issue you are creating many, many, many more.”
The bill has already won approval in the Assembly. It must receive approval in the Senate committee and pass a vote of the full Senate before going to Gov. Joe Lombardo for a signature.