Los Angeles Times

Senators introduce bipartisan rail safety bill

Ohio lawmakers lead call for new federal regulation­s after last month’s fiery crash.

- By Julie Carr Smyth and Josh Funk Smyth and Funk write for the Associated Press. Funk reported from Omaha.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Railroads like the one involved in last month’s fiery crash and toxic chemical release in Ohio would be subject to new federal safety regulation­s under bipartisan legislatio­n introduced Wednesday by the state’s two U.S. senators. But even before Congress acts, regulators plan to step up inspection­s of tracks that carry the most hazardous materials.

The Railway Safety Act of 2023, co-sponsored by Sens. Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance, a Democrat and Republican, respective­ly, and four others representi­ng both parties, responds to the derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train in East Palestine, in northeast Ohio near the Pennsylvan­ia state line, on Feb. 3, when 38 cars derailed and several carrying hazardous materials burned.

Though no one was immediatel­y injured or killed, the accident and its aftermath imperiled the village and nearby neighborho­ods in both states. It prompted the evacuation of about half of the town’s roughly 5,000 residents, an ongoing multigover­nmental emergency response, and villagers’ lingering fears of long-term health effects.

Federal Railroad Administra­tion chief Amit Bose said Wednesday that the agency would focus inspection­s on routes that carry more of the dangerous chemicals that trains routinely haul, starting in East Palestine. About 180,000 miles of track nationwide were checked last year with a combinatio­n of automated vehicle and human inspectors. The number is expected to increase this year with this program.

“I fully recognize this derailment continues to upend daily lives. The needs of East Palestine and the rail safety needs of all communitie­s is at the top of my mind,” Bose said. “The U.S. Department of Transporta­tion will continue to use our tools to hold Norfolk Southern accountabl­e for the derailment and to improve freight rail safety across the country.”

The Senate bill addresses several questions that have arisen from the disaster, including why Ohio was not aware the hazardous load was coming through and why the crew didn’t learn sooner of an impending equipment malfunctio­n. The proposals echo much of what Transporta­tion Secretary Pete Buttigieg called for last week.

“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.”

Norfolk Southern Chief Executive Alan Shaw said Wednesday that he would testify next Thursday at a U.S. Senate hearing on the derailment, and the railroad has been in talks with other lawmakers. He has refused to testify before a Pennsylvan­ia state Senate committee and has been subpoenaed to appear next week.

The bill would require railroads to create emergency response plans and provide informatio­n about trains carrying hazardous materials to emergency response commission­s in each state a train passes through.

That could mean significan­t changes. Hazardous materials account for 7% to 8% of the roughly 30 million shipments railroads deliver in the U.S. each year. But almost any train — aside from a grain or coal train carrying a single commodity — might carry one or two cars of hazardous materials, because railroads often mix all kinds of shipments together on a train.

The Assn. of American Railroads trade group says 99.9% of hazardous materials shipments reach their destinatio­ns safely, and railroads are generally regarded as the safest option to transport dangerous chemicals across land. Still, the East Palestine accident showed how even one derailment can be devastatin­g.

Railroad worker unions say operationa­l changes and widespread job cuts in the last six years have made railroads riskier. They say that employees are spread thin after nearly a third of all rail jobs were eliminated, and that train crews in particular deal with fatigue because they are on call 24/7.

The bill would require train crews to continue to have two people. The provision isn’t in response to East Palestine — where the train had three crew members — but to an industry push for one-person crews. The Federal Railroad Administra­tion is already considerin­g requiring two-person crews in most instances.

Sen. Brown said it shouldn’t take a massive disaster for elected officials to work across party lines.

“Rail lobbyists have fought for years to protect their profits at the expense of communitie­s like East Palestine and Steubenvil­le and Sandusky,” he said in a statement. “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.”

Under the plan, regulators would have to set limits on train size and weight as railroads increasing­ly haul trains that stretch over 2 miles. Railroads are moving fewer, longer trains these days so they don’t need as many crews, mechanics and locomotive­s.

Unions say longer trains are more prone to problems, including breaking apart midtrip, and can clog rail lines.

Brown, Vance and the bill’s other early co-sponsors — who include Democrats Bob Casey and John Fetterman of Pennsylvan­ia and Republican­s Marco Rubio of Florida and Josh Hawley of Missouri — also would increase the maximum fine that the U.S. Department of Transporta­tion can impose for safety violations, from $225,000 to up to 1% of a railroad’s annual operating income.

The National Transporta­tion Safety Board determined the crew in the East Palestine accident had been alerted too late by a device that detects overheatin­g bearings. On Tuesday, federal regulators urged rail operators to reexamine how they operate and maintain such detectors, but the Senate proposal would establish rules for their use.

The bill would set requiremen­ts for installing, maintainin­g and placing devices that detect such mechanical issues, and mandate that they scan trains carrying hazardous materials every 10 miles. The last two detectors the East Palestine train passed were 19 miles apart. No federal requiremen­ts exist now for wayside detectors, though the sensors are widespread. Railroads currently decide where to place the detectors and what temperatur­es trigger warnings when an overheatin­g bearing is detected.

The bill would also require regulators to set tougher inspection requiremen­ts. Unions say inspectors previously had about two minutes to inspect each railcar, but now they only get about 30 to 45 seconds per car. And those who maintain signals and warnings at rail crossings have bigger territorie­s to cover, making it harder to keep up with preventati­ve maintenanc­e.

Democratic Reps. Chris Deluzio of Pennsylvan­ia, and Ro Khanna of Fremont introduced a separate rail safety bill in response to the East Palestine derailment in the Republican-controlled House on Tuesday. Its goal is to ensure that trains carrying hazardous materials are properly classified and are required to take correspond­ing safety precaution­s.

 ?? Matt Freed Associated Press ?? THE STATE of the Norfolk Southern freight train derailment cleanup in East Palestine, Ohio, as of Friday. Sens. Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance are leading co-sponsors of the Railway Safety Act of 2023.
Matt Freed Associated Press THE STATE of the Norfolk Southern freight train derailment cleanup in East Palestine, Ohio, as of Friday. Sens. Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance are leading co-sponsors of the Railway Safety Act of 2023.

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