Senate Committee to Vote on Bipartisan Rail Safety Legislation

May 8, 2023

The Senate Commerce Committee is set to vote Wednesday on sweeping bipartisan rail safety legislation.

The move comes just over three months after a February 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio that sparked a fire and a miles-wide toxic chemical spill.

Both the Department of Justice and the state of Ohio have sued rail owner Norfolk Southern over the derailment. 

An initial report in February by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that a wheel bearing on rail car 23 had passed three sensors prior to the East Palestine derailment. With each passing, the temperature had risen higher. The third sensor reported the temperature at 253 degrees, causing the train’s automatic emergency braking to kick in and bring the train to a full stop. 

The train’s 38 cars that derailed were carrying substances that included vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate and isobutylene, all of which are toxic to humans and the environment.

According to Commerce Chair Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the proposed legislation will mandate the use of technology that can identify equipment failures. In addition, it will prevent cursory railcar inspections, and ensure that trains carrying explosive materials comply with stronger safety regulations.

The bill also increases maximum civil penalties from $100,000 to $10 million for rail safety violations. Further, it requires at a minimum two crew members be present to operate a train.

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in March, apologizing for the derailment and promising that the rail owner won’t finish “until we make it right.”

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