Thursday 2 March 2023

Senators Introduce Bipartisan Bill To Improve Rail Safety After Ohio Train Crash

 Republican and Democratic lawmakers unveiled a bill on Wednesday that would increase safety restrictions on trains carrying hazardous materials.

The legislation comes weeks after a Norfolk Southern train derailed near East Palestine, Ohio. Authorities evacuated all residents within one mile of the February 3 incident and started a controlled burn of chemicals on the vehicle to lower the risk of an explosion, producing massive plumes of black smoke visible throughout eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.

Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) introduced the Railway Safety Act of 2023, which would require rail companies to report hazardous materials present trains to state authorities, raise inspection requirements, and increase the rigor of defect detection efforts. Other sponsors include Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), and Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA).

“Through this legislation, Congress has a real opportunity to ensure that what happened in East Palestine will never happen again. We owe every American the peace of mind that their community is protected from a catastrophe of this kind,” Vance said in a press release. “Action to prevent future disasters is critical, but we must never lose sight of the needs of the Ohioans living in East Palestine and surrounding communities. One day, the TV cameras will leave, and the news cycle will move on, but the needs of those Ohioans will remain.”

The legislation would also increase several civil penalties for violations of rail safety regulations tenfold and require that each train must operate with at least two-person crews. With respect to safety in transporting hazardous materials, each carrier must produce a gas discharge plan and submit to periodic inspections with minimum time requirements. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg would be directed by the legislation to enumerate more specific rules. The Biden administration has called on Congress to enact similar reforms.

“The Norfolk Southern train derailment left Pennsylvania and Ohio families, businesses, and first responders grappling with a disaster that spilled hazardous materials in their community. It shouldn’t have happened here and it shouldn’t happen anywhere else in America,” Casey added. “The Railway Safety Act will make freight rail safer, hold rail companies accountable for putting communities and workers in harm’s way, and protect people over profits.”

The train derailment launched debate in Washington over increased scrutiny for rail companies. Buttigieg said the White House has been “constrained” on rail safety due to a “braking rule withdrawn by the Trump administration in 2018 because of a law passed by Congress in 2015.” National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy later clarified that the rule would not have applied to the train which derailed in East Palestine because of its classification as a “mixed freight train” rather than a “high hazard flammable train.”

Federal investigators have preliminarily concluded that the derailment was caused by a malfunctioning rail axle. “Surveillance video from a residence showed what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment,” the NTSB said in a press release. “The wheelset from the suspected railcar has been collected as evidence for metallurgical examination.”

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