Sens. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) have added a fourth railroad safety bill to three currently circulating on Capitol Hill by introducing on March 30 one they claim will “further expand rail safety requirements in the wake of the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment,” according to a report in The Hill.
According to The Hill, the Railway Accountability Act, which as of March 31 did not have an assigned number, “aims to build on a slew of rail safety overhauls” included in S. 576, the Railway Safety Act of 2023, introduced March 1 by Sens. J. D. Vance (R-Ohio), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Bob Casey and John Fetterman (D-Pa.), and proposes the “increase of safety requirements for trains carrying hazardous materials, hike fines for safety violations and require more frequent inspection of railcars, among other measures.”
The newly unveiled Railway Accountability Act, The Hill reports, would “bolster train inspection requirements and direct the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to study the cause of wheel derailments and offer regulatory solutions, among other measures,” making clear that senators “are doing everything we can to prevent a disaster like this from happening again,” Fetterman said.
The Railway Safety Act of 2023—the first such bill in the quartet to be introduced—also includes transferring oversight of HBDs (hot bearing detectors) from railroads to the federal government, and requires minimum-two-person train crews. It has strong support from Senate Democrats and some Republicans but is opposed by the Association of American Railroads and conservative advocacy groups, which argue that additional regulation would be costly and wouldn’t prevent derailments.
Norfolk Southern (NS) CEO Alan Shaw declined to endorse The Railway Safety Act of 2023 during a March 22 U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing, but said he’d “support some aspects of the bill, such as hazardous materials training for first responders.”
On Feb. 28, Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Chris DeLuzio (D-Penn.) and Nick LaLota (R-N.Y.) introduced H.R. 1674, the Decreasing Emergency Railroad Accident Instances Locally (DERAIL) Act, to “broaden the definition by which trains get classified as a ‘high-hazard flammable train (HHFT).’”
The DERAIL Act—number two in the quartet—Rep. Khanna says, will “ensure that trains carrying hazardous materials are properly classified and rail carriers are required to take proper safety precautions—such as slower speeds, newer railcars, better braking equipment, and required reporting—when carrying these materials across the country.” The bill also improves information sharing by requiring rail carriers to report to the National Response Center, State officials, and local officials within 24 hours after a train carrying toxic chemicals derails.
All of the first three bills—the Railway Safety Act, the DERAIL Act and the RAIL Act—are nearly identical, with some key differences, according to the National Association of Counties (NACo). Most notably, the RAIL Act does not contain the minimum-two-person crew requirement found in the Railway Safety Act and DERAIL Act.
According to NACo, provisions across the versions of legislation important to counties include:
- “Authorizing $22 million to research, develop and implement wayside defect detectors under the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) FRA Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement (CRISI) grants.
- “Requiring carriers to address delays that result in blocked crossings, which cost local communities time and money and create extreme safety hazards at at-grade rail crossings, where nearly all are located within county boundaries.
- “Requiring the strengthening and upgrade of tank cars transporting hazardous materials and establishing a deadline for the phase out of older, less safe cars.
- “Increasing resources for USDOT Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) Assistance for Local Emergency Response Training (ALERT) grants that support hazardous materials (HAZMAT) response training for volunteer or remote emergency responders using new Class I registration fees.”
Editor’s Commentary: This barbershop quartet of bills is way-off-key, a dissonant, noisy, cluttered example of how railroad safety is being politicized. As I’ve said before and will say again (and again until I’m blue in the mouth), the rail industry does not need politicians wasting time churning out legislation that essentially duplicates what our industry is already doing. No doubt, the derailment, fire and release of hazardous materials into the environment and its effects on the East Palestine community are serious. The NTSB has determined a probable cause—a freight car wheel bearing burnoff—released its findings in a preliminary report, and should produce a final, detailed report within the next year or so. Until then, there is not enough information to make a final, truthful, fact-filled, research- and science-based decision on what exactly happened, and what the industry needs to do to prevent a future occurrence. Norfolk Southern, as I see it, is doing everything it can to help the community recover and move on, and is committed to making an already-safe railroad even safer. Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, there are those who have grabbed hold of this accident and attempted to get ahead of the NTSB. They’ve turned it into a vehicle to advance their own agendas, political or other, spreading—either from lack of knowledge, compromised ethics or both—bad information and exaggerations. The truth, which takes time to ascertain, has been buried under a pile of political pronouncements and attempts to resurrect old, abandoned proposed regulations—namely, ECP brake requirements for HHFTs and minimum crew size legislation that have, in my opinion, little or nothing to do with safety or science. You can take that to the next Capitol Hill hearing, which will undoubtedly be another mildly entertaining political circus. – William C. Vantuono