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Transparency needed in train transport

“It’s frustrating, but unfortunately you get used to it.”

That’s what Duane Hagelgans, emergency management coordinator for Millersville Borough and Manor Township and a professor of emergency management at Millersville University, said of the lack of transparency over the materials being conveyed by trains traveling through our region.

First responders shouldn’t have to “get used to it.”

Politicians like to talk about the sacrifices and bravery of first responders. But in this instance, when elected officials could do something substantive to keep first responders safe, they’ve shamefully dragged their heels.

Danger is literally barreling down the tracks, but it’s hard to detect any urgency about prioritizing human safety.

As Rejrat reported, about “135 miles of active rail lines weave through Lancaster County carrying rail cars that at any point could be filled with hazardous material.”

A derailment in Lancaster County like the one that occurred in East Palestine could devastate the local community. And if it happened on a track over or even near the Susquehanna River, the downstream effects could be long-ranging and difficult to remedy.

East Palestine residents told ABC News earlier last month that some community members, having been forced to vacate their homes, still are displaced. And some continue to experience health issues in the derailment’s wake. Research is ongoing into the long-term consequences of exposure to the toxins in the industrial chemicals the Norfolk Southern train was transporting.

Local emergency responders told Rejrat that nothing has changed in terms of how they would respond to a derailment in Lancaster County and the information - or lack thereof - available to guide their response.

As we noted in an editorial last July, it’s difficult to coordinate a response when you don’t know exactly what you’re dealing with. And not having the ability to effectively respond is a hazard of its own.

Hagelgans said he has seen no additional training, transparency or outreach to local responders from private train companies.

According to Rejrat’s reporting, Norfolk Southern - which owns rail lines in Lancaster County and across Pennsylvania - did bring the company’s “safety train” to Harrisburg in July for three days of training for first responders.

The specially outfitted train, which includes classroom rail cars and different types of tanker cars, is meant to familiarize first responders with the types of rail cars and equipment they might encounter in an emergency.

This training was the least Norfolk Southern could do.

Doing the bare minimum seems to be part of a pattern: Rejrat reported that before July 2023, the safety train was last in Harrisburg in 2021. And the hands-on training has not been offered in Lancaster County since at least 2017.

Legislation derailed

The seriousness of the East Palestine derailment should have led to quick legislative action in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C.

Alas, it did not.

As Rejrat reported, “Proposed legislation that would create databases of hazardous materials and require increased transparency on the part of train companies has stalled in Congress and the state Legislature.”

Pennsylvania House Bill 1028 proposes “creating a database of hazardous material traveling on state railways, and that information would be available to emergency management agencies,” she noted.

The bill passed easily in the state House in early June. But it’s been languishing in the Republican-controlled state Senate Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee since then.

Unbelievably, three Lancaster County Republicans voted against the bill: Reps. Keith Greiner, David Zimmerman and Tom Jones. Their constituents should ask them why. Also voting no were Reps. Jamie Barton, Zach Mako and Jack Rader.

State Sen. Ryan Aument, a West Hempfield Township Republican who not only sits on the relevant committee but is the Senate majority whip, did not immediately respond to Rejrat’s request for comment about the bill’s status. We implore Aument to use his influence to get the bill out of committee.

In Congress, Pennsylvania U.S. Sens. Bob Casey and John Fetterman joined Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley in introducing a pair of bills last March that were combined into the Railway Safety Act.

According to Rejrat’s reporting, that legislation would direct federal transportation officials to develop regulations requiring railroads to notify local emergency response groups, fire departments and law enforcement agencies when hazardous materials are moving through their communities. It also would establish a fund, paid for by the companies that ship and convey hazardous materials, to provide emergency responders with needed resources.