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Fetterman, Brown, Casey unveil new rail safety bill

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General view of the site of the derailment of a train carrying hazardous waste, in East Palestine, Ohio, March 2, 2023.

Alan Freed | Reuters

Three senators introduced new legislation Thursday in a bid to address long-standing rail safety concerns, the latest development in the aftermath of last month’s derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic materials near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.

The new Railway Accountability Act – introduced by Democratic Sens. John Fetterman and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Sherrod Brown of Ohio – would build on provisions of the bipartisan Railway Safety Act. Brown and his fellow senator from Ohio, Republican J.D. Vance, introduced that measure earlier this month. Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw endorsed parts of the bipartisan bill.

The Feb. 3 derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, released toxic chemicals into the environment. Shaw said Norfolk Southern would continue to support cleanup efforts in the area. He and government officials have said it’s safe to live in the town, but residents and workers on the cleanup site have complained about illnesses. The state of Ohio has also sued the company.

The new measure would direct the Federal Railroad Administration to study wheel-related failures and derailments, as well as mechanical defects. It would also enact new brake safety measures and improve switchyard safety practices, in addition to ensuring railways provide sufficient reporting and safety equipment to its workers. A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board pointed to an overheated wheel bearing on the Norfolk Southern train that derailed but did not offer an exact cause.

The bill, which has received support from major labor unions, would also require large freight railroad companies to participate in a confidential reporting system where close calls and unsafe events will be evaluated.

As of Thursday, the bill had no Republican sponsors, which could complicate its path through the GOP-controlled House. Some Republican politicians and conservative advocacy groups have argued that more regulations would not prevent derailments and would instead by costly.

“Rail lobbyists have fought for years to protect their profits at the expense of communities like East Palestine and Steubenville and Sandusky,” Brown, who’s up for reelection next year, said in a statement. “These commonsense 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.”

Derailed train cars carrying ethanol erupted in flames in Raymond, Minn., on Thursday.

NBC News

The new bill comes after Fetterman, Casey and Brown introduced the Assistance for Local Heroes During Train Crises Act to support first responders handling the aftermath of hazardous train derailments.

The already-introduced Railway Safety Act, which has faced resistance from some top Republicans, would create stricter safety requirements for trains carrying hazardous materials, as well as increase the frequency of rail car inspections. The bill also would require two-person crews to work aboard trains carrying hazardous materials. Shaw, the Norfolk Southern CEO, opposes that provision.

“We’re not aware of any data that links crew size with safety,” Shaw said during a Senate hearing last week.

The bill from Fetterman, Casey and Brown came on the same day a BNSF Railway train, carrying ethanol, derailed and caught fire in Raymond, Minnesota. The incident led to an evacuation of residents near the site, officials said.

No injuries were reported and the cause is being investigated, according to BNSF.

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