Lawmakers Introduce Bipartisan Rail Safety Bill Hours After Another Derailment

Jeff Louderback
By Jeff Louderback
March 31, 2023Politicsshare

Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), co-sponsor Rep. Emilia Sykes (D-Ohio), and other Ohio U.S. representatives introduced the Reducing Accidents in Locomotives (RAIL) Act at a March 30 press conference hours after a BNSF Railway train carrying ethanol derailed and caught fire in Raymond, Minnesota.

Residents near the crash site were evacuated. No injuries were reported, and the derailment’s cause is under investigation, BNSF reported.

“This is all timely,” Johnson said, noting the Minnesota derailment. “So what we’re talking about here today is very, very important.”

rain Derailment Ohio
Portions of a Norfolk and Southern freight train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio, are still on fire at mid-day, on Feb. 4, 2023. (Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo)

The RAIL Act was announced in the aftermath of Norfolk Southern’s toxic train derailment on Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, a village of about 4,700 residents a mile from the Pennsylvania border.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported that 11 of the 38 cars that derailed contained hazardous chemicals.

Residents in East Palestine and surrounding communities were given an evacuation order by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro before officials executed a burn and release to reduce the chance of an explosion.

On Feb. 8, DeWine held a press conference in East Palestine, lifting the order and telling residents it was safe to return to their homes.

Since then, though state and federal agencies have said that testing shows the air and water are safe, many residents have reported headaches, nausea, burning eyes, rashes, and other ailments.

Piles of contaminated soil have accumulated around the derailment site.

‘Safety Is Crucial’

The district Johnson represents includes East Palestine.

“Americans from every corner of the nation are understandably concerned about the safety and the accountability of our nation’s rail systems,” Johnson said.

“Safety is crucial, and there are several steps Congress can take right now to keep our communities safe and better prevent a disaster like this from ever occurring in another community.

“The RAIL Act makes important and pragmatic changes to the way our nation’s rail industry operates, ensuring that our families, friends, and neighbors are kept safe.”

Six Republicans and five Democrats from Ohio’s congressional delegation co-sponsored the legislation.

“Public safety transcends politics and district boundaries. And rail safety is not a partisan issue. It is a human issue,” Sykes said at the press conference.

Sykes added that the RAIL Act will give Americans “peace of mind” that trains “transporting hazardous materials or any other goods” will operate safely.

The bill will also hold rail corporations accountable, Sykes said.

The legislation would mandate new rail safety measures and charge financial penalties if railroads don’t meet the requirements.

Among other measures, the bill would direct the Federal Rail Administration to recommend operational changes based on the current NTSB investigation of the derailment.

The U.S. Transportation Department would be tasked with adding new rail car restrictions on length, weight, speed, and track standards, among other specifications.

The Secretary of Transportation would be required to introduce regulations regarding the detection of rail car defects on trains carrying hazardous materials.

Railroads would have to alert state emergency response authorities if their trains are carrying hazardous materials. The legislation would also mandate that rail carriers have two-person teams operating their trains.

Increased funding to train responders about how to handle hazardous materials is also included in the bill.

Ohio has one of the country’s largest railroad networks and ranks fourth in the nation for “serious train accident accidents and hazardous materials spills,” according to a statement from Johnson and Sykes when they announced the bill on March 17.

From 2019 through November 2022, 281 train accidents happened in Ohio, they said.

Multiple Bills Proposed

The House’s RAIL Act follows the Senate-led Railway Safety Act of 2023, which was introduced by Sens. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) on March 1.

That measure is aimed “to prevent future train disasters like the derailment that devastated East Palestine.”

Along with Vance and Brown, Sens. Bob Casey (D-Penn.), John Fetterman (D-Penn.), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also sponsored the legislation.

The bill takes 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, and increasing fines for wrongdoing committed by rail carriers.

When the Railway Safety Act was introduced, Vance said: “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.”

“I’m very glad to see that Congressman Johnson has such a strong, bipartisan group from the Ohio delegation behind [the RAIL Act],” Vance said in a statement. “This is a huge development for improving railway safety in this country.”

While Johnson and Sykes introduced their bill on March 30, three Democrats who co-sponsored the Railway Safety Act announced their own legislation to expand rail safety requirements.

Fetterman, Casey, and Brown debuted the Railway Accountability Act, which is Fetterman’s first piece of legislation since taking office in January. He continues to recover from a stroke he suffered last year and is expected to return to the Senate in mid-April after receiving treatment for clinical depression.

The bill is designed to build on overhauls included in the Railway Safety Act.

“Communities like Darlington Township and East Palestine are too often forgotten and overlooked by leaders in Washington and executives at big companies like Norfolk Southern who only care about making their millions,” Fetterman said in a statement.

As of March 30, the Railway Accountability Act didn’t have a Republican sponsor.

It’s backed by the Transport Workers of America, the National Conference of Firemen and Oilers, and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers-Mechanical Division.

“This bill will implement commonsense safety reforms, hold the big railway companies accountable, protect the workers who make these trains run, and help prevent future catastrophes that endanger communities near railway infrastructure,” Fetterman said.

“Working Pennsylvanians have more than enough to think about already—they should never have been put in this horrible situation.”

From The Epoch Times

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