OPINION: Lobbyists and legislators: Hidden power players in Nevada’s rail safety saga
In the vast expanse of Nevada, stretching from the sun-soaked Mojave Desert to the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada, the state's rich history and dynamic present are deeply intertwined with the railways. These iron arteries, which have long traversed the Silver State's varied landscapes, are not just remnants of a bygone era but active lifelines that sustain its economy and connect its communities.
In Nevada, the story of rail safety is woven into the very fabric of the state, from the bustling urban centers to the remote mining towns. This narrative — often overshadowed by the state's more famous attractions — is at an imperative point with recent legislative developments highlighting the critical role these tracks play in the state.
Last year, Nevada faced a pivotal moment in its approach to rail safety with the introduction of Assembly Bill 456. This bill, which sought to implement critical safety measures for rail operations, was ultimately vetoed. Undeterred by this setback, rail labor advocates are redoubling their efforts, planning to introduce a bill akin to AB456 in the upcoming Nevada legislative session.
The politics of rail safety in Nevada tread a fine line between earnest concern and political theater. On record, there's a chorus of agreement on the importance of rail safety. Yet, behind the scenes, the rail lobby's influence casts a long shadow over legislative decisions. This duality is most apparent in the actions of Republican lawmakers who, while often sympathetic to rail labor issues in private conversations, seem to march to a different drum when it comes to casting their votes.
It's a puzzling dance of priorities, where the safety of Nevadans and visitors often seems to be waiting in the wings, while the railroad lobby takes center stage. Such a scenario begs the question: In the grand production of Nevada's rail safety legislation, are public safety and welfare leading the narrative or are they merely supporting characters in a script written by industry lobbyists?
The veto of AB456 came as Nevada is on the cusp of a major rail expansion with the Brightline West project. This high-speed rail line, set to connect Las Vegas to Southern California, represents a significant advancement in transportation infrastructure. However, it also raises important questions about safety standards and preparedness. The lessons from AB456's journey through the legislature must not be forgotten as we embark on this new venture.
Nevada's economy, heavily reliant on tourism, cannot afford to overlook the importance of rail safety. A single major rail incident could not only have devastating immediate impacts but also tarnish the state's reputation as a safe and welcoming destination. The veto of AB456 is not just a legislative issue; it's a matter of protecting the economic lifeline of our state.
As we move forward, particularly with the development of Brightline West, it's crucial that Nevada reevaluates its stance on rail safety. This project should be seen as an opportunity to set a new standard in rail safety, not just for Nevada but for the nation. We must advocate for stringent safety standards for passenger and freight operations, comprehensive training for rail workers and a commitment to ongoing safety oversight for an industry that is historically self-regulated.
The story of rail safety in Nevada is at a critical chapter. As we stand at this crossroad, let's choose the path that leads to a safer, more secure future for all who travel Nevada's rails. Let's ensure that the allure of our state is matched by our commitment to safety and responsibility. It's not just about being on the right track; it's about ensuring that track is as safe as it can possibly be.
Jason Doering, who has 20 years of experience as a locomotive engineer and conductor, is an advocate for transportation safety and workers' rights. He is a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Division 766 in Las Vegas and is the former Nevada state legislative director for SMART Transportation Division.
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