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Train derailments spark more concerns about trains in Milwaukee

Two train derailments in Wisconsin in a matter of days has renewed calls for improved rail safety.  Senator Tammy Baldwin called the derailments "incredibly disappointing and alarming".  Baldwin has long pushed for rail safety enhancements. 

"It's unacceptable that the railways are not letting us know the status and state of the infrastructure that runs through our communities," Baldwin said.  She hopes some of her proposed amendments become part of a bipartisan transportation bill.

The City of Milwaukee has held numerous committee hearings at the urging of people living near train tracks.  They've raised concerns about access to bridge inspection reports.  Alderman Terry Witkowski says the derailments prove there's a need for concern.

"I think we've got some great concerns still on this matter that need to be set at ease by the railroad," Witkowski said.  "They need to be more open and produce their records."

Baldwin released the following statement. 

“I have been sounding the alarm for two years on the need to put in place strong rail safety reforms. These two train derailments in Wisconsin are more evidence why Congress needs to take action on the ‎reforms I have proposed,” said Senator Baldwin. “Today I am calling on the House and Senate conference committee to include the reforms I have proposed in the final transportation bill. We need to put in place rail reforms that provide safety, transparency, and better communication between the railroads and local first responders and communities.”

In July, the Senate passed bipartisan federal transportation legislation that included Senator Baldwin’s rail safety reforms. However, the House of Representatives has failed to act on the rail safety reforms. Last week, the House passed a long term transportation bill but it didn't include the rail safety measures that passed the Senate 65-34.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate are now working in a conference committee on a long-term federal transportation compromise.

“Wisconsin first responders should be applauded for their reaction to these derailments but railroad companies need to do more to strengthen communication with local communities before an accident occurs. We also need to require railroads to have adequate resources in place to respond to accidents that cause environmental damage. My reforms would address both these issues,” said Senator Baldwin. “I was proud that the Senate passed rail safety reforms in July but I am disappointed that the House did not. The House and Senate conference committee now has an opportunity to take action to advance rail safety reform and they need to seize that opportunity.”

The Senate’s six-year transportation funding extension legislation included several provisions championed by Senator Baldwin, aimed at increasing safety and transparency along Wisconsin’s oil train routes:

Transparency: Senator Baldwin’s amendment would require that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) keep on file the most recent bridge inspection report prepared by a private railroad bridge owner and provide that report to appropriate state and local officials upon request.  

Real-Time Reporting: Senator Baldwin’s amendment addresses concerns raised by the first responder community who would like real-time access to information about hazmat trains entering their jurisdictions in order to better prepare. This amendment modified the bill’s original language that only required real-time hazmat train information to go to U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Fusion Centers, who then provide the information to local first responders only in the event of an accident, when it is less useful. Senator Baldwin’s amendment requires DHS Fusion Centers to provide the real-time information to state and local first responders at least 12 hours prior to a hazmat train arriving in their jurisdiction. The transmission must include the train’s expected time of arrival. 

In addition, the Senate legislation included provisions modeled after Senator Baldwin’s Crude-By-Rail Safety Act, which she introduced in March 2015.

Comprehensive Oil Spill Response Plans: The Senate bill requires railroads to maintain a plan for responding to a worst-case oil discharge. This provision is similar, but not as robust as the policy included in Senator Baldwin’s Crude-By-Rail Safety Act, which would leave much of the discretion of the contents and submission of the report up to the federal regulatory agencies. The provision included in the Senate bill instead defers to the rail carriers. 

Rail Carrier Liability Study: The Senate bill requires the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to initiate a study on the appropriate levels of insurance for railroads carrying hazardous materials.


The full text of the letter is below:

Dear Members of the Conference Committee:

As you know, Congress has not passed a multi-year transportation bill since 2009. Since then, our transportation landscape has changed significantly. Oil trains, which were a rare sight in 2009, now pass through many Wisconsin towns several times a day.  I have repeatedly encouraged the Obama Administration to update federal oil train safety regulations; and in March of 2015 I coauthored the Crude by Rail Act, S. 859. As you begin your important work resolving the differences between the House and Senate versions of the long-term highway bill, I urge you to include three rail safety provisions that I worked to include in the Senate-passed DRIVE Act, to respond to the growing oil train threat. These changes would significantly improve transparency and safety in communities along oil train routes. In light of the two hazardous materials derailments in Wisconsin on November 7th and 8th, it is clear that these reforms are needed now more than ever.

Section 35431 of the DRIVE Act addresses concerns raised by the first responder community who have had to fight for access to real-time information about hazmat trains entering their jurisdictions. Firefighters want to know in advance when hazmat trains will arrive in order to better prepare and keep their communities safe. This amendment modified the bill’s original language that only required real-time hazmat train information to go to Department of Homeland Security Fusion Centers. The Centers would then provide the information to local first responders only in the event of an accident, when it is less useful. My provision requires Fusion Centers to provide the real-time information to state and local first responders at least 12 hours prior to a hazmat train arriving in their jurisdiction. The transmission must also include the best estimate of the train’s arrival and the contents of each train car. 

Current regulations that govern oil spill response plans for high hazard flammable trains are inadequate. While both House and Senate bills have provisions addressing this issue, the House version allows for exemptions that effectively gut the intent of the section. If better oil spill response equipment were available for the spill into the National Wildlife Refuge in Alma, WI, the environmental damage would have been far less. The House language will allow the inadequate preparation to continue. I would urge you to not only reject the House exemptions, but to include the Senate passed oil spill response language, which is similar to Section 8 of the Crude-by-Rail Safety Act, which I co-authored with Senator Cantwell. 

Finally, Section 35416 of the Senate-passed legislation would require all railroads to provide to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) their most recent bridge inspection report of any bridge they own. The FRA would then be required to keep these reports on file and make them available to state and local officials upon request. This allows state and local officials who are responsible for public infrastructure integrity and public safety to have access to information they need to keep the public safe. 

We are still gathering information about the causes and responses to derailments in Alma and Watertown, Wisconsin. However, preliminary reports indicate that Wisconsin’s bravest, our first responders, reacted swiftly to the hazardous material spills. I do have concerns that our emergency management personnel may not have had all the information about the train’s contents before they arrived on the scene. All the more reason that my amendment is needed to improve information sharing between railroads and our first responders to ensure accidents are contained quickly.

I believe these changes significantly improve transparency and safety in communities along oil train routes. The provisions empower communities and state and local officials who are often powerless to take action against federally regulated railroads—despite being responsible for any problems they cause. I appreciate your leadership on this issue, and look forward to working with you to pass a long-term surface transportation reauthorization.

Sincerely,

Tammy Baldwin
United States Senator

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