Bipartisan group of senators proposes railway safety bill after East Palestine derailment

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A group of bipartisan senators unveiled legislation Wednesday to tighten train safety standards after last month’s train derailment in Ohio, but House Republicans remain wary of new regulations on the rail industry.

Led by Ohio’s Democratic and Republican senators, Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance, the legislation would make all rail carriers notify state governments if trains moving hazardous materials will enter their territory.

“Congress has a real opportunity to ensure that what happened in East Palestine will never happen again,” said Mr. Vance. “We owe every American the peace of mind that their community is protected from a catastrophe of this kind.”

The bill mandates that all trains have at least a two-person crew on board. It further creates new requirements for railcar wheel bearings and pushes the Transportation Department to revisit guidelines about optimal train weight and size.

“It shouldn’t take a massive railroad disaster for elected officials to put partisanship aside and work together for the people we serve,” said Mr. Brown, a Democrat who is running for re-election in increasingly Republican Ohio in 2024.

Apart from Mr. Vance and Mr. Brown, four other senators are supporting the bill, including Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman and Florida Republican Marco Rubio. The bill is the first bipartisan legislative response since the wheel bearings on a train carrying hazardous materials overheated and caused a derailment in Ohio last month.

The derailment, although not leading to any fatalities, caused a large chemical fire near the town of East Palestine. The contamination forced residents of the town to evacuate as toxic gas spilled into the atmosphere.

The derailment was one of three to occur on tracks owned by Norfolk Southern Railway in the past six months. A similar derailment occurred in October near Sandusky, Ohio, and another happened in mid-February in southeast Michigan.

Mr. Brown alleged such incidents were because railway companies had prioritized corporate profits over safety. The Ohio Democrat noted that Norfolk Southern had issued stock buybacks in recent months and laid off employees.

“Rail lobbyists have fought for years to protect their profits at the expense of communities,” he said. “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 bill faces an uncertain audience from Republicans in the House and Senate.

For it to pass the narrowly divided Senate, at least nine GOP lawmakers will have to vote with every single Democrat to avert a filibuster. Only three Republican back the measure: Mr. Vance, Mr. Rubio and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley.

Support within the GOP-controlled House remains just as murky. Republican lawmakers have been quick to blame Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for the derailment, demurring on imposing new regulations on the railway industry.

Some Republicans say it’s too early to consider legislation, given that the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal agency, has yet to finish its investigation into the East Palestine accident. Such a probe could last upward of 18 months.

“Hazardous materials are only 8% of the 30 million shipments that travel via railway annually,” said a senior GOP aide. “Right now, we still don’t know the full story of why the derailment happened. It would be cheap politics to impose new and potentially burdensome regulations just to say we did something, especially as there are still lingering supply chain issues.”

Mr. Vance says the time to act is now. “One day, the TV cameras will leave, and the news cycle will move on, but the needs of those Ohioans will remain,” he said. “I will never stop fighting to deliver the support they need.”

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