In the wake of Norfolk Southern’s fiery train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, some Washington lawmakers and Biden administration officials have started considering tougher regulations on trains carrying hazardous materials.
To try to shut down this new regulatory push, the railroad industry’s top Washington lobbying group is going back to its old playbook: sponsoring Beltway news outlets’ discourse-shaping tip sheets. That includes running ads that look like native content touting rail companies’ alleged commitment to safety in Politico’s Huddle newsletter, a so-called “play-by-play guide to all things Capitol Hill,” all while the industry urges policymakers to hold off on issuing new regulations.
“When it comes to safety — 99.9 percent is not enough,” say the ads, which are sponsored by Association of American Railroads (AAR), which lobbies for railroad companies like Norfolk Southern. “While 99.9 percent of all hazmat shipments that move by rail reach their destination safely, we know a single incident can have significant impacts. That’s why America’s freight railroads will never stop working to improve safety and protect communities, workers, and the environment.”
The AAR campaign, which has been running since Monday, comes as the Ohio trail derailment continues to shine a spotlight on how railroad companies have emphasized cost-cutting to enrich shareholders over public safety, and how the rail and chemical industries have aggressively fought tougher regulations on trains carrying highly toxic and flammable substances.
During past regulatory battles, rail lobbyists have relied on prominent news outlets — including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Vox — to print their preferred narratives in the form of ads designed to look like regular news articles.
In 2015, as the rail industry was fighting to block an Obama-era rule that would have required railroad companies to use electronic braking technology on some hazmat trains, Vox published an ad from AAR touting “the freight rail industry's relentless approach to safety — one in which good is never good enough.”
Just before the 2016 election, the Washington Post published branded content from AAR in which the lobbying group’s president warned: “A key task for the new president and Congress must be to put the brakes on a federal agency whose regulatory actions are needlessly placing one of the nation’s core industries at risk.”
The Trump administration repealed the electronic brake requirement in 2017.
The rail industry has regularly utilized Politico, the Beltway news outlet that helped popularize the “native advertising” model, where email newsletters are “presented by” corporate lobbying groups seeking to spin the news affecting their members’ industries.
Last fall, as lawmakers were voting to bust a looming strike and impose a labor contract on exhausted rail workers demanding the industry provide them paid sick time, AAR ran ads in Politico’s Huddle newsletter touting the contract, saying that it “charts a better, stronger future for our employees and industry, and the economy.”
The latest ads from AAR direct readers to a webpage where the association brags, “More than 99.9 percent of all hazmat moved by rail reaches its destination without a release caused by a train accident.”
As The Lever noted in a recent New York Times op-ed, the costs from derailments of trains carrying hazardous materials has increased over the last seven years. According to AAR, in 2021 alone, trains carried 2.2 million carloads of chemicals.
The AAR ads additionally declare, “Railroads stand ready to work with government officials and safety experts to identify and implement proven steps to help prevent future accidents from happening.”
In reality, the rail lobby is already fighting new safety rules. When the Transportation Department announced last week it will pursue new rules on trains transporting hazardous materials, AAR demanded that regulators pause and wait to issue new safety rules until the government has completed its investigation into the Ohio derailment.A few weeks before Politico started running the new AAR ads, the outlet’s national politics reporter attacked The Lever for asking our readers to help fund our continued reporting on the East Palestine derailment and train safety rules.