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Railway Safety Act passes committee, moves to Senate floor for full vote

A Norfolk Southern freight train passes passes through East Palestine, Ohio, on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023.
Gene J. Puskar
A Norfolk Southern freight train passes through East Palestine, Ohio, on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023.

A U.S. Senate bill aimed at increasing railway safety has passed out of committee and is moving onto the Senate floor. The bill’s co-sponsor, Sen. Sherrod Brown, is celebrating this decision.

The Senate bill, which comes after February's derailment and chemical burn disaster in East Palestine, ramps up regulation of trains with toxic materials, mandates new rail safety technology, outlaws one-person train crews and increases fines.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation passed the Railway Safety Act Wednesday morning, moving the bill to the Senate floor for a full vote. Brown said he’ll be pushing for the vote to happen as soon as possible.

“These trains are getting longer. They’re getting heavier," Brown said. "There are more cars on them, and the railroads still think you need one human being driving these trains.”

The Senate bill includes a provision mandating a two-person crew on each train, which is absent from the House’s version. Brown said he’s not giving up on this mandate.

“When I talked to the CEO of CSX, I asked him if he had just flown in from Jacksonville," Brown said. "He said yes. I said, ‘Did they have one or two copilots on the plane?’”

CSX Transportation is a freight railroad company.

The mandatory two-person crew provision is very popular, Brown said.

"The public will not stand for one engineer on a train that's two miles long with 210 cars, as the Springfield derailment train was," Brown said. "It just doesn't pass a straight-faced test."

A second Norfolk Southern train derailed in Springfield, Ohio just one month after the crash in East Palestine.

Although Brown thinks passing the bill will be challenging in the House, he’s hopeful the strong bipartisan support in the Senate, where Ohio’s other senator, Republican J.D. Vance, is a co-sponsor, as well as a recent endorsement from former President Donald Trump will make a difference.

"My concern is, of course, that the Speaker of the House is really tight with the railroad lobby but so is the number two Senate ranking member and the number two Republican senator and [Sen. Ted] Cruz, so we can overcome that opposition," Brown said. "We will have a lot of momentum going into the House floor."

Brown dismissed Cruz's prediction the bill will fail because it lacks the 60 votes needed to end debate in the Senate.

"He's wrong. He was wrong about the bill in committee. He thought there might be no Republicans with maybe the exception of Vance," Brown said. "He tried to weaken it. He tried to slow walk it. We knew we had the support of the country."

Every Senate Democrat supports the bill, Brown said. To pass, nine additional Republicans would need to join Vance in voting yes.

In a statement, Vance called the passage a "bipartisan victory for railway safety in America."

"I look forward to finishing the fight and passing this legislation through the Senate," Vance said in a statement.

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw also released a statement, saying the passage out of committee is a step toward bipartisan legislation enacting rail safety.

"We look forward to continuing our engagement with members of Congress on the issues, achieving a meaningful and effective new law and leading on safety measures within the industry," Shaw said.

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