Bloomberg Law
Feb. 21, 2023, 10:00 AMUpdated: Feb. 21, 2023, 8:04 PM

Buttigieg Seeks Higher Fines, Tighter Rules After Derailment (1)

Lillianna Byington
Lillianna Byington
Jennifer A. Dlouhy

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wants tougher regulation of high-hazard flammable trains and stiffer penalties for violations in the aftermath of the chemical train derailment in Ohio.

The Transportation Department is pushing freight rail companies to accelerate their phase-in of safer tank cars and opt in to a reporting system with the agency that protects whistleblowers who spot safety problems, the agency announced Tuesday. The department is also initiating safety inspections on routes traveled by high-hazard flammable trains.

The Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern Corp. train carrying hazardous materials set off a fire with smoke across East Palestine, Ohio, and community worries about toxic chemicals. The Biden administration has faced increasing pressure among reports that town residents have been dealing with headaches, lingering odors, and deaths of animals.

Buttigieg is calling on Congress to boost the maximum fines the department can impose on rail companies for violating safety regulations and to increase spending to expand hazardous materials training for first responders. The maximum fine for violating hazardous materials transportation law that results in death, injury, or property damage is currently $225,455.

“A six-figure penalty for a fatal incident is pretty much a rounding error for a multibillion-dollar corporation,” Buttigieg told reporters on a call Monday. He said he wants to work with Congress on the fine cap, and “a pretty good place to begin would be to add a zero.”

Chemical Train Accident Sparks Push to ‘Raise the Bar’ on Safety

The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating what caused the Ohio derailment. The Transportation Department said it will also pursue further rulemaking on high-hazard flammable trains and electronically controlled pneumatic brakes. The Trump administration repealed a 2015 rule that would require some trains carrying hazardous materials to update their braking.

Neil Figley, 28, holding his daughter, Harlie, 4, waits in line Feb. 17, 2023, at the Norfolk Southern Assistance Center to collect a $1,000 check for expenses while they were evacuated following the train derailment that prompted health concerns in East Palestine, Ohio.
Michael Swensen/Getty Images

“Even though there are a lot of obstacles to trying to restore it, or strengthen it, or replace it, I’ve directed our team to look at every angle on that, even while also urging Congress to untie our hands so that we can do more,” Buttigieg said.

Buttigieg said he wants to work with this “newfound bipartisan interest and support we’ve been seeing in Congress to secure stronger legislation and overcome resistance by industry.” Train derailments are “far too frequent,” with more than 1,000 per year, he said.

Calls for Change

Lawmakers and key groups have recently escalated calls for action. Labor unions have called for regulations aimed at ending precision-scheduled railroading, while environmental groups have pushed for modernized rail brake requirements.

Buttigieg said the department will also advance its two-person crew minimum rule in trains, which has drawn pushback from the railroad companies.

Buttigieg also wrote to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw on Feb. 19, telling the company the Federal Railroad Administration will “act with all of its legal authorities” to hold it accountable for any violations. Shaw visited the community this past weekend and the company recently launched a website, called “,” where it will post regular updates after the accident.

The Biden administration took control of the East Palestine cleanup on Tuesday, with the Environmental Protection Agency issuing an order requiring Norfolk Southern to follow a work plan and pay remediation costs. EPA Administrator Michael Regan made the announcement during his second visit to the town Tuesday, after meeting with local officials and residents last week and pledging to support the community, as well as hold Norfolk Southern accountable.

The NTSB has said the Ohio train didn’t qualify as a “high-hazard flammable train,” a federal classification that has additional requirements. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (R) has criticized that classification. Congress needs to take a “hard look” into rail safety with hearings and action, DeWine said at a news conference Tuesday, adding it was “absurd” that law doesn’t require the state to be notified of the train and what it was hauling.

EPA Vows to Hold Norfolk Southern Accountable for Ohio Disaster

Tools Against ‘Bad Actors’

Some lawmakers were quick to back stronger regulations and fines on railroads. Top Democrats on the House committee overseeing transportation plan to work with Buttigieg on advancing them.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ranking member Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) said he would work on solutions in the coming weeks, including “stronger tools to penalize bad actors, updating the rules governing the transport of hazardous materials, and supporting the hardworking railroad workers who keep our economy running.”

Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.), the ranking member on the panel’s railroads subcommittee, said he wants to work with Buttigieg to boost fines for rail safety violations “to match the dangers from derailments.”

Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Transportation-Housing and Urban Development Subcommittee, said the department’s announcement is a “key step forward,” but that there’s more work to do.

“Congress must pass reforms to change the way the rail industry does business and exercise its oversight duties to make sure what happened in East Palestine, Ohio never happens again,” Schatz said.

But some lawmakers and the Association of American Railroads, a trade group representing major freight railroads, want the investigation to move forward before deciding on a response. The NTSB’s investigation “must continue unimpeded by politics and speculation so NTSB’s findings can guide what additional measures may have prevented this accident,” AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies said.

“All stakeholders – railroads along with federal, state and local officials – must work to restore the public’s trust in the safety and security of our communities,” Jefferies said in a statement Tuesday.

(Updates throughout to add new reporting.)

With assistance from Jennifer A. Dlouhy

To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at; Anna Yukhananov at