Transportation and Telecommunications

Rail safety proposal considered

The Transportation and Telecommunications Committee heard testimony Feb. 13 on a bill intended to improve the safety of freight trains operating in Nebraska.

Sen. Lynne Walz
Sen. Lynne Walz

Fremont Sen. Lynne Walz, sponsor of LB1212, said the bill includes comprehensive rail safety measures that are needed in light of recent freight rail accidents in Nebraska, including a BNSF coal train derailment near Cairo last week and an explosion at Union Pacific’s Bailey Yard in North Platte in September.

She said 42 trains derailed in Nebraska between January 2022 and November 2023.

“Rather than waiting on federal legislation … let us as Nebraska take the necessary steps to protect our constituents and our crew members,” Walz said.

Under the bill, a train carrying hazardous substances on a main line in Nebraska could be no more than 8,500 feet long.

Additionally, a railroad operating a train on a main line would be required to have a wayside detector system installed at least every 20 miles. LB1212 would require a railroad to stop and inspect a train from the ground after receiving a defect message from a wayside detector system.

The bill also includes provisions that would prohibit railroads from blocking public crossings for longer than 10 minutes as well as require them to offer hazardous materials training to fire departments and maintain insurance coverage that is adequate to pay for costs, damages and liabilities related to accidents.

Tim Schram, who testified in support of LB1212 on behalf of the Nebraska Public Service Commission, said federal legislation setting standards for wayside detector systems and other rail safety measures is stalled.

Although the commission supports the bill’s provisions related to blocked crossings, he said, similar laws in other states have been “uniformly unsuccessful,” with railroads arguing in court that federal law preempts state regulations.

Also in support was Andrew Foust of SMART TD, a labor union representing rail workers. Between 2021 and 2023, he said, the average Union Pacific train was more than 9,300 feet long.

Foust said radio signals from wayside detectors, which spot defects as train cars pass by, have difficulty reaching a locomotive when trains are that long, making length restrictions necessary.

Amanda Snide, a Union Pacific worker, also testified in support, saying first responders need greater access to training to handle situations like last year’s explosion in Bailey Yard, which involved hazardous materials.

“As catastrophic derailments and incidents are ever increasing,” she said, “the training on how to handle them needs to as well.”

Testifying in opposition to LB1212 was Rod Doerr, chief safety officer at Union Pacific. He said railroads have voluntarily installed wayside detector systems for decades and that advancements in technology will help reduce derailments and blocked crossings.

Doerr said there is no definitive correlation between train length and derailments or blocked crossings and that the 2021 federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocated funding to study the operation of freight trains longer than 7,500 feet.

“We should wait for those results,” he said.

Robert Bavier, senior director of Union Pacific’s hazardous materials team, also testified in opposition. He said the railroad offers a variety of in-person and online training programs for fire departments in Nebraska and other states.

“We already do what the bill states and more,” Bavier said.

Also in opposition was Jeff Davis of BNSF. He said federal courts have struck down state laws regarding train length and blocked crossings and that federal law prohibits state regulation of wayside detector systems, insurance requirements and other provisions of LB1212.

“This bill is really an attempt to regulate issues already covered by federal statutes and more than 1,300 pages of federal regulations,” Davis said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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