Senators to Introduce Bill Aimed at Rail Safety

March 1, 2023

A bipartisan group of Senators on Wednesday were set to introduce a new bill aimed at strengthening rail safety following the East Palestine, Ohio disaster.

The Railway Safety Act of 2023 will be introduced by Sens. J.D. Vance (R-OH), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bob Casey (D-PA), John Fetterman (D-PA), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Josh Hawley (R-MO). It comes just under a month after the February 3 derailment in East Palestine that sparked a fire and a miles-wide toxic chemical spill. 

It also comes two weeks after the Ohio and Pennsylvania Senators had called for an investigation into the disastrous derailment. Next week, the CEO of rail owner Norfolk Southern, Alan Shaw, is reportedly scheduled to testify before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

The new bill lays out several provisions for boosting rail safety to prevent future such catastrophes. It includes “new safety requirements and procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials like vinyl chloride,” as well as a mandate that railways give advance notice to railways to state emergency response officials about what their trains are carrying. The bill also includes requirements to prevent blocked railway crossings and new rules for train size and weight.

The bill also requires that rail cars “that carry hazardous 17 materials are inspected by a qualified mechanical inspector” at specified increments.

The proposed legislation also seeks to ramp up inspections of wheel bearings. Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary inspection of the East Palestine rail disaster found that there “appeared to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment.”

The Biden Administration has advocated for similar rail reforms, calling for Congressional action as it defends itself against criticism of its response to the Ohio catastrophe.

“We’re focusing on lessons learned when it comes to rail safety,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN Tuesday. He shifted blame to the rail industry for “[wielding] a lot of power in Washington.”

Among the White House’s legislative requests, according to Buttigieg, are raising the cap on fines for rail companies for safety violations, accelerating the timeline for bringing in fortified tank cars that are less likely to spill when there’s a derailment, and giving the Department of Transportation “a freer hand on things like breaking regulations and regulations on hazardous material transportation.”

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