Ohio senators push for rail safety

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Brown , Vance introduce bill

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Ohio’s two U.S. senators, while in opposing parties, came together this week to introduce landmark railroad safety legislation in the wake of the East Palestine derailment.

The state’s senior senator, Democrat Sherrod Brown, was joined by newly-elected Republican JD Vance in introducing on Wednesday the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023 

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Brown discussed the legislation in a conference call with reporters.

U.S. Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio. (Senate photo)

“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,” Brown said. “Rail lobbyists have fought for years to protect their profits at the expense of communities like East Palestine and Steubenville and Sandusky.”

The senator said the legislation contained “common sense, bipartisan safety measures” which would “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 community was hit when 32 rail cars of a Norfolk Southern train, carrying hazardous materials, derailed on Feb. 3. Cars burned for multiple days, as well a through a controlled burn, releasing hydrogen chloride and phosgene into the air, leading to an evacuation within a 1-mile radius of the site.

According to Brown’s office, the legislation will enhance safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials by including new safety requirements and procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials like vinyl chloride. It would also require rail carriers to provide advance notification and information to state emergency officials about what they are transporting.

The legislation would also increase rail car inspections to ensure that any car carrying hazardous materials is inspected by a qualified rail car inspector at regular intervals.

It is also aimed at reducing the risk of wheel bearing failures by establishing requirements for wayside defect detectors and requiring trains carrying hazardous materials to be scanned by hotbox detectors every 10 miles.

The bill also would raise fines for violations by rail carriers and require a trained two-person crew aboard every train.

It also addressing the aftermath of disasters such as East Palestine by expanding HAZMAT training grants for law enforcement and first repsponders.

Joining Brown on the call was Clyde Whitaker, the SMART Transportation Division chair, who said the legislation introduced by the senators was the most significant in rail safety that he had seen in his 25-year career.

Brown said that he was glad to come together with Vance on areas where they agree and work for solutions, as he said he had done with Vance’s predecessor, Republican Rob Portman.

“I hope we can continue that tradition of Ohio bipartisanship,” Brown said.

Brown said he will stay focused on the situation in East Palestine, beyond the national attention, and work to see that needs are met and that that Norfolk Southern pays for costs incurred by residents for things such as medical testing.

When asked about proposals for federal relief to the area, Brown said he did not oppose it, as he did not want to see “someone dig into their pockets to pay for a hotel room,” but stressed the responsibility for the disaster lies with the rail company.

Vance commented on the legislation in a news release.

“Through this legislation, Congress has a real opportunity to ensure that what happened in East Palestine will never happen again,” Vance said. “We owe every American the peace of mind that their community is protected from a catastrophe of this kind. Action to prevent future disasters is critical, but we must never lose sight of the needs of the Ohioans living in East Palestine and surrounding communities. One day, the TV cameras will leave, and the news cycle will move on, but the needs of those Ohioans will remain. I will never stop fighting to deliver the support they need.”