(The Center Square) – Republicans and Democrats in Congress want to tighten railroad regulations and spend more than $20 million to develop rail safety nearly a month after a train carrying hazardous materials derailed near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.
New legislation proposed by three Democrats and three Republicans addresses instruments that monitor high temperatures and help prevent wheel bearing failures, which the National Transportation Safety Board said caused the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
“It shouldn’t take a massive railroad disaster for elected officials to put partisanship aside and work together for the people we serve – not corporations like Norfolk Southern,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-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.”
The Railway Safety Act of 2023 focuses on five areas, including stronger safety procedures and notifications for trains carrying hazardous materials, wheel bearing failure, crews, future improvements and support for communities impacted by rail disasters.
“What happened in East Palestine was a horrific tragedy,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri. “The safety regulations governing our nation’s railroads must be updated to ensure that a disaster like this never happens again.”
The bill would mean new safety requirements and procedures for trains carrying hazardous material and require carriers to give advanced notice and information to state emergency officials about the contents. It would also establish rules for train size and weight.
“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,” said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania. “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 bill would require two-person crews aboard every train and increase fines the U.S. Department of Transportation can impose for safety violations. Ohio lawmakers, last week, also proposed a two-person crew requirement on trains in the state, and that plan was met with opposition from the Ohio Railroad Association, which said that should be handled at the federal level.
The bill would also pump $22 million into the Federal Railroad Administration for research and development grants and another $5 million to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for stronger tank car safety features.
The act would also require trains carrying hazardous materials to be scanned by hotbox detectors every 10 points and establish requirements for wayside detectors.
According to the NTSB, Norfolk Southern train 32N, a general merchandise freight train, was traveling from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, with 149 cars, including 20 cars with hazardous materials among its cars. A total of 38 cars derailed, including 11 tank cars with hazardous materials.
As previously reported by The Center Square, NTSB Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy said each rail company establishes its critical thresholds for heat in wheel bearings. Norfolk Southern’s is 115 degrees Fahrenheit; the second of the two indicators the crew received showed the temperature at 103. The final reading, which came miles later, was at more than 250 degrees.
That was too late, Homendy, has said.
“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,” said Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio.