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Senators Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance introduce Railway Safety Act

 A train runs along the track in East Palestine, Ohio.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
A train runs along the track in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 16, 2023. The derailment in the town on Feb. 3, 2023, prompted calls for Congress to increase freight rail safety.

Ohio’s U.S. senators, one Democrat and one Republican, joined together to introduce bipartisan legislation to increase freight rail safety. It was prompted by the toxic train derailment in East Palestine that brought calls for congressional action.

The Railway Safety Act introduced by Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown and Republican Sen. J.D. Vance aims to enhance safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials, increase rail inspections and reduce the risk of wheel bearing failures, among other measures.

"It would mean new rules to prevent wheel bearing failures like we saw in this crash," Brown said. "We know wheel bearing failures are the number one mechanical cause of derailments. It would require two person work crews on every train."

The bill states that a "well trained" two person crew must be aboard every train. Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union Transportation Division Chair Clyde Whitaker think this is a good step.

"Some things that maybe to consider are minimal training standards for railroad employees coming into the industry," Whitaker said.

The bill would establish requirements for wayside defect detectors. Currently, railroads oversee this. Whitaker has been advocating for this for more than a year.

"We believe that every ten miles, a detect defector should be present, terrain permitting of course," Whitaker said.

Whitaker said the train should be stopped and inspected immediately when a defect is suspected.

The bill also requires all trains carrying hazardous materials to create emergency response plans and give states advance notice when a hazardous load will be passing through.

The bill would also raise fines for companies when rail accidents happen.

"Right now fines are so low, they don't even make a dent in the profits of these big corporations," Brown said. "They're just a low cost way, cost of doing business."

Brown criticized Norfolk Southern and other freight rail companies for lobbying against safety measures in recent years. Railroad worker unions argue that operational changes and widespread job cuts across the industry in the past six years have made railroads riskier.

“Norfolk Southern’s profits go up, accidents have gone up," Brown said.

The legislation doesn’t include all of the measures advocates had pushed for, including regulation of electronic brakes. Amit Bose, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), promised additional regulations from his agency.

“More actions are coming this week and beyond to advance our number one priority -- safety," Bose said.

On Wednesday, the FRA began a nationwide inspection of routes used by high hazard trains.

"We're going to evaluate the conditions of track quality," Bose said. "Signal and train control infrastructure and systems is something else that we're going to look at.

The inspections will start in East Palestine.

Bose called on class one rail companies like Norfolk Southern to join the confidential "close call" reporting system for near accidents.

Brown said the bill is a good start, and if it passes the House and Senate, he will introduce additional legislation with more regulations.

"We got a really good bill," Brown said. "The changes will make a real difference."

Whitaker praised the bill.

"Right now we have an opportunity to turn disaster into a positive thing, not just for Ohio but for the remainder of the country as well," Whitaker said. "This bill is the largest leap in rail safety I've seen in my 23 year career."

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.

Residents have complained that Norfolk Southern isn't doing enough to assist the town's recovery. Brown reiterated that he will ensure Norfolk Southern foots the entire bill for recovery.

"Whether the federal government fronts money first is being considered," Brown said.

Brown has called on the Environmental Protection Agency and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to ask for more medical testing in East Palestine. He said the accident and chemical release could impact the residents of East Palestine like victims of burn pits during the U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, some of whom are experiencing long lasting symptoms.

"This may be similar to that we just don't know," Brown said. "That's why we need to keep testing."

"We owe every American the peace of mind that their community is protected from a catastrophe of this kind,” Vance said in a statement released by his office. “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."

The EPA has maintained that water and air quality in East Palestine are safe.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.