Los Angeles Times
Senators introduce bipartisan rail safety bill
Ohio lawmakers lead call for new federal regulations after last month’s fiery crash.
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.