Merkley Grills Norfolk Southern CEO Over Safety at Senate Hearing

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley – the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Chemical Safety, Waste Management, Environmental Justice, and Regulatory Oversight on the Committee on Environment and Public Works – pressed Alan Shaw, the CEO of Norfolk Southern, to commit to safety improvements before engaging in further stock buybacks to enrich executives and shareholders. Shaw refused.

“This tragedy demands accountability because future derailments will happen,” said Merkley in opening remarks at the hearing. “Unless we learn the lessons of this incident, there will undoubtedly be more derailments – derailments with devastating impacts on more communities.”

At the hearing, Merkley pointed out the company’s troubling history of lobbying against safety requirements and prioritizing profit over people. Merkley directly asked if Shaw’s assertion that the railroad was “turning over a new leaf” regarding safety meant that his team of lobbyists would push for safety improvements rather than lobbying against safety regulations, as they have a history of doing. Merkley also challenged Shaw to stop eliminating positions that oversee track safety conditions, and to pledge to forgo more stock buybacks that enrich executives and shareholders until safety measures have been completed to reduce the risk of derailments. In both cases, the CEO declined to commit to prioritizing safety.

Further demonstrating the need for safety improvements, an additional Norfolk Southern train derailment occurred this morning and was reported while the hearing was ongoing.

“You are coming here today with three train derailments within three months,” said Merkley. “If we can put people on the moon, we can put modern brakes on every train car. This is really the single most significant safety factor that can be pursued. And I really hope that you, Norfolk Southern, and the railway industry start taking safety seriously—which we have not seen to this point.”

You can watch Merkley’s questioning of Norfolk Southern CEO here.

Merkley has been a longstanding proponent of needing to improve rail safety and stopping the transport of hazardous materials through American communities via railway. In 2016 – after a crude oil train derailed near Mosier, Oregon – Merkley introduced the MOSIER Act and pushed for improvements in safety inspections and technology for trains carrying hazardous materials.