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Ohio congressional delegation urges swift action on RAIL 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. After the Feb. 3 derailment, two bills were introduced in Congress to prevent future train accidents.

Members of Ohio’s congressional delegation are urging swift action on a bill that would increase rail safety. The bill differs slightly from a similar one in the Senate.

The Reducing Accidents in Locomotives, or RAIL, Act was introduced in the House earlier this month. Rep. Bill Johnson, whose district includes East Palestine, says the bill is very similar to the Railway Safety Act in the Senate.

“But there’s a couple of things in that bill in the Senate that you simply wouldn’t get through the House," Johnson said. "We have House rules here about appropriations, and so there are appropriation issues that would prevent it from getting to the House."

Johnson also cited a provision in the Senate bill that would require freight rail companies to replace all chemical tank cars by 2025, which he said is impossible to do.

The other notable difference is that the House bill does not include the requirement for every train to have a two-person crew. However, Democratic members of the Ohio delegation said that’s something they’re still interested in pursuing.

"I am very interested in a two-person safety crew on our trains," Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Toledo said, "and we need to do so much a better job of the electronic surveillance that can happen to avoid these accidents."

Johnson is optimistic that as both bills advance, they'll come up with a good solution.

The Feb. 3 derailment and chemical burn in East Palestine is still being cleaned up. Johnson said the bill can't wait, after another derailment occurred Thursday morning in Minnesota.

"When is the next one going to occur," Johnson asked, "and what is the next village or township or community in America that's going to have to be evacuated because of unsafe rail?"

Akron Democrat and co-sponsor Rep. Emilia Strong Sykes said she'll continue to advocate for rail employees, who shared their concerns with representatives.

"I will not stop prioritizing the 134,314 freight railroad workers across the country, including the over 5,000 workers employed in the state of Ohio," Strong Sykes said. "They deserve safe working conditions."

The bill also has support from Democratic Reps. Joyce Beatty, Shontel Brown and Greg Landsman, and Republican Reps. Dave Joyce, Mike Carey and Max Miller.

The majority of sponsors spoke about how rail accidents have impacted their districts, including Kaptur, who said a derailment in Sandusky near a road to Cedar Point didn't get enough attention until the derailment in East Palestine.

"When that happened, they sort of came in and kind of cleaned up some of the paraffin that had fallen over in the tanker cars," Kaptur said. "The tanker cars literally have been hanging over the overpass for all these months."

Sandusky Mayor Dick Brady has not been happy with the response, Kaptur said.

"The cooperation from Norfolk Southern has been incredibly slow. Their willingness to accept responsibility for the cost of the repairs has been vague, all right? And they proceeded with repairs without a commitment of funding from the railroad," Kaptur said. "How about that? Isn't that a company you'd like to do business with?"

Johnson chairs a House environment committee that held its first hearing on the East Palestine derailment this week.

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