Norfolk Southern, the operator of the freight train carrying toxic chemicals that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, nearly a year ago, has agreed to participate in a federal program that allows employees to report safety issues confidentially, the company and federal officials announced on Monday.
In the aftermath of the derailment, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called on Norfolk Southern and the nation’s other major freight railroads to join the program, one of a series of steps he urged them to take to improve safety.
The railroads committed in March to participating, but in the months that followed, they pushed for changes to the program to address concerns about how it functions. None of the largest freight rail companies, known as Class I railroads, had officially agreed to join until the announcement on Monday.
Norfolk Southern’s participation in the program, known as the Confidential Close Call Reporting System, or C3RS, will be limited in scope. The railroad will carry out a one-year pilot program that will apply to about 1,000 employees in Atlanta; Elkhart, Ind.; and Roanoke, Va., who are members of two unions, a small fraction of the company’s work force of roughly 20,000 people.
“Norfolk Southern has taken a good first step, and it’s time for the other Class I railroads to back up their talk with action and make good on their promises to join this close call reporting system and keep America’s rail network safe,” Mr. Buttigieg said in a statement.
Alan H. Shaw, the chief executive of Norfolk Southern, said in a statement that the company was “committed to setting the gold standard for rail safety, and we are proud to be the first Class I railroad to deliver on our promise to co-develop and launch a C3RS program.”
The federal program, which is modeled after a similar one for pilots and other aviation personnel, allows railroad employees to report safety issues without worrying about potential discipline. But the freight rail companies raised concerns that workers might be able to take advantage of the program as a way to shield themselves from punishment after making dangerous mistakes.
The Association of American Railroads, an industry group, said on Monday that the other major freight rail companies were still committed to joining the program.
“This commitment remains unchanged,” said Jessica Kahanek, a spokeswoman for the group. She added, “A.A.R. and its member railroads collectively and individually have engaged in good-faith conversations with the administration and rail labor about strengthening the program.”