Senators prep bill aimed at preventing more train derailments

FILE – A view of the scene Friday, Feb. 24, 2023, as the cleanup continues at the site of a Norfolk Southern freight train derailment that happened on Feb. 3, in East Palestine, Ohio.

(NewsNation) — In an effort to prevent disasters like last month’s train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, which led to a toxic chemical release, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators plans to introduce legislation subjecting railroads to new federal safety regulations.

The Railway Safety Act of 2023 is being proposed by Ohio U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and Republican J.D. Vance, along with Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Josh Hawley, R-Mo., Bob Casey, D-Pa., and John Fetterman, D-Pa.

“The bill will take a number of key steps to improve rail safety protocols, such as enhancing safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials, establishing requirements for wayside defect detectors, creating a permanent requirement for railroads to operate with at least two-person crews, increasing fines for wrongdoing committed by rail carriers, and more,” a statement from Vance’s press office said.

Some other provisions in the bill include:

  • New safety requirements for trains carrying hazardous materials such as vinyl chloride
  • Requiring trains carrying hazardous materials to be scanned by hotbox detectors every 10 miles
  • Substantially increasing the maximum fines the U.S. Department of Transportation can issue for safety violations
  • Expanding HAZMAT training grants for local law enforcement and first responders through increased registration fees

A total of $22 million is allocated to the Federal Railroad Administration for research and development grants “regarding wayside defect detectors and other rail priorities,” while $5 million would be given to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to develop stronger tank car safety features.

“Through this legislation, Congress has a real opportunity to ensure that what happened in East Palestine will never happen again,” Vance said in a statement. “We owe every American the peace of mind that their community is protected from a catastrophe of this kind.”

On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern train of about 50 freight cars going from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, derailed in East Palestine. Ten of the cars on the train contained hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride, prompting a dayslong evacuation. There were no injuries reported, though residents have said they have gotten headaches and other health problems. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimates nearly 44,000 animals have been killed.

In a statement, Brown criticized rail lobbyists, as well as corporations like Norfolk Southern, saying they have “fought for years” to protect their profits at the expense of communities like East Palestine, as well as nearby Sandusky, and Steubenville Ohio.

“These commonsense bipartisan safety measures will finally hold big railroad companies accountable, make our railroads and the towns along them safer, and prevent future tragedies, so no community has to suffer like East Palestine again,” Brown said.

On Twitter, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said he “applauds” the “swift bipartisan action” taken by the senators.

Buttigieg has also called for some of the bill’s measures, including increased US DOT fines for safety violations and two-person train crews, in a three-pronged plan he announced last week.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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