Toxic crash prompts Ohio senators to cross party lines with bill to ‘finally hold big railroad companies accountable’

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Railroads like the one involved in last month’s fiery crash and toxic chemical release in Ohio would be subject to a series of 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 the tracks that carry the most hazardous materials.

The Railway Safety Act of 2023, co-sponsored by U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown and JD Vance, a Democrat and Republican, respectively, and four others of both parties, responds to the fiery derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train in East Palestine, in northeast Ohio near the Pennsylvania border, on Feb. 3, when 38 cars derailed and several carrying hazardous materials burned.

Though no one was injured or killed, the accident and its aftermath imperiled the entire village and nearby neighborhoods in both states. It prompted an evacuation of about half the town’s roughly 5,000 residents, an ongoing multigovernmental emergency response and lingering worries among villagers of long-term health impacts.

The administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, Amit Bose, said Wednesday that his agency is going to focus the inspections it does on routes that carry more of the dangerous chemicals railroads routinely haul, starting in East Palestine. Federal inspectors checked out roughly 180,000 miles of track nationwide last year with a combination of automated inspection vehicles and human inspections. That 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 aims to address several key regulatory questions that have arisen from the disaster, including why the state of Ohio was not made 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 CEO Alan Shaw said Wednesday that he plans to testify next Thursday at a U.S. Senate hearing on the derailment, and the railroad has been in talks with other lawmakers. Shaw refused to testify before a Pennsylvania Senate committee and is now being subpoenaed to appear next week.

The bill would require railroads to create emergency response plans and provide information about trains carrying hazardous materials to the emergency response commissions of each state a train passes through.

That provision could mean significant changes. Hazardous materials shipments account for 7% to 8% of the roughly 30 million shipments railroads deliver across the U.S. each year. But almost any train — aside from a grain or coal train that carries 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 Association 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 involving hazardous materials can be devastating.

Railroad worker unions argue that operational changes and widespread job cuts across the industry in the past six years have made railroads riskier. They say employees are spread thin after nearly one-third of all rail jobs were eliminated and 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 specifically in response to East Palestine — where the train had three crew members — but to an industry push toward one-person crews. The Federal Railroad Administration is already considering a rule that would require two-person crews, in most instances.

Brown said it shouldn’t take a massive railroad disaster for elected officials to work across party lines for their communities.

“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 be required to set limits on train size and weight as railroads increasingly haul long trains that stretch more than 2 miles (about 3 kilometers). Railroads are moving fewer, longer trains these days, so they don’t need as many crews, mechanics and locomotives.

Unions argue the longer trains are more prone to problems, including breaking apart in the middle of a trip, and these monster trains also can clog rail lines, because they may extend farther than the current sidings for pulling off the main tracks.

Brown, Vance and the bill’s other early co-sponsors — who include Democrats Robert Casey Jr. 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. It would raise it from $225,000 to up to 1% of a railroad’s annual operating income, which could run into the tens of millions of dollars.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the crew involved in the East Palestine accident was alerted by a device designed to detect overheating bearings, but not soon enough to prevent the crash. Federal rail regulators urged rail operators Tuesday to reexamine their practices for operating and maintaining such detectors, but the Senate proposal would establish rules for their use.

The bill would set nationwide requirements for installing, maintaining and placing the devices — designed to automatically detect wheel bearing and other mechanical issues — and mandate that they scan trains carrying hazardous materials every 10 miles (16 kilometers). 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 in the freight rail industry. Currently, railroads are left to decide where to place those detectors and what temperatures should trigger action when an overheating bearing is detected.

The bill would also require regulators to set tougher inspection requirements. Unions say railcar inspectors previously had about two minutes to inspect every railcar, but now they only get about 30 to 45 seconds to check each car. And signalmen who maintain signals and warnings at rail crossings have bigger territories to cover, making it harder to keep up with preventative maintenance.

Democratic U.S. Reps. Chris Deluzio, of Pennsylvania, and Ro Khanna, of California, 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 required to take the corresponding safety precautions.

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Funk reported from Omaha, Nebraska.

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