By Cooper Burton For fivethirtyeight.com
Last Saturday, a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in Springfield, Ohio, taking out power for over 1,000 people and prompting authorities to issue a temporary shelter-in-place order for nearby residents. And no, this wasn’t the one that generated headlines with images of billowing clouds of smoke and toxic runoff in nearby streams. That was the other train that derailed in Ohio last month.
Saturday marked the second train disaster in as many months for Norfolk Southern, one of the largest railway companies in the U.S. This most recent crash did not involve hazardous materials, unlike the first derailment near East Palestine, Ohio, which prompted officials to order the evacuation of around a third of the town’s residents. But it has still sparked an outcry from residents, and government officials have scrambled to respond. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited East Palestine to tour the damage and renewed a push for stricter crew staffing rules from the Federal Railroad Administration. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee called in Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw on Thursday to testify about the disaster. And Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance announced a joint billbeefing up railroad safety regulations and increasing maximum fines for companies that violate them.
Public opinion seems to support this push to tighten regulations. According to recent polls, Americans are generally supportive of efforts to tighten railway safety, particularly when it comes to hazardous materials. A Premise poll from February indicated that 76 percent of Americans feel more regulation is needed to ensure freight rail safety, with 43 percent favoring increased federal oversight, while 33 percent preferred additional state or local regulation. And 53 percent of respondents in a recent Ipsos pollagreed that the East Palestine derailment could have been prevented with stronger safety regulations.
A February YouGov poll conducted right after the East Palestine disaster shows more of a mixed bag, however. In that poll, 34 percent of U.S. citizens said that the railroad industry should be more regulated, 15 percent said it should be less regulated and 33 percent favored no change at all. But a narrower phrasing of the question from YouGov seemed to garner more support in its poll for The Economist last week; 63 percent of Americans in that survey agreed that the government should set more limits on the transportation of hazardous materials through populated areas, including solid majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents.
But Americans’ desire for the government to have tighter control over railways doesn’t mean they’re happy with how it’s handled the East Palestine disaster. A mid-February Beacon Research/Shaw & Company Research poll for Fox News showed that 57 percent of Americans disapproved of how the Biden administration was handling the aftermath of the derailment. And in last week’s YouGov/Economist poll, 43 percent of Americans disapproved of the federal government’s response to the chemical spill in East Palestine, while only 29 percent approved and another 29 percent were unsure.
Americans also seem skeptical that the government will be able to adequately respond to future derailments. In a CivicScience pollconducted after the first crash but (ironically) before the second, 41 percent of adults familiar with the initial incident said they didn’t trust state or federal leaders at all to respond to a similar incident in the future, while 40 percent said they would trust them a little, and just 19 percent said they would trust them a lot.
Although Americans clearly aren’t happy with the government’s response, they don’t necessarily blame it for the disaster. In an earlier YouGov/Economist survey from mid-February, a solid 65 percent of Americans said that the company that owns the train (Norfolk Southern) bears the most blame for the spill of hazardous materials in East Palestine. That includes a majority of every racial, gender, age and ideological subgroup that the poll identified. In total, only 21 percent said it was mainly the government’s fault, while 14 percent blamed the workers on the train.https://d-181833940478050748.ampproject.net/2302271541000/frame.html
Regardless of whom Americans blame, they are broadly supportive of further government measures to regulate the transportation of hazardous materials and the railroad industry at large. That likely won’t be easy though, even with the flurry of new government activity in response to the derailments. The railroad industry is a powerful sector that has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past few decades successfully lobbying to block new safety measures. Whether public opinion can overcome that influence after the disasters in Ohio the past month remains to be seen.