Buttigieg Calls on Congress to Pass Rail Safety Bill

Transportation Secretary Urges Country's Mayors to Press Issue
Pete Buttigieg
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg would like to see congressional action on the Railway Safety Act before the one-year anniversary of the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. (Annabelle Gordon/Bloomberg News)

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Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently pressed Congress to pass legislation that would strengthen rail safety policies.

Ideally, he emphasized, congressional action on the measure would occur before the anniversary of the derailment of a freight train in East Palestine, Ohio.

“As we near the one-year anniversary of the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, while I am proud of the work the [U.S. Department of Transportation] team has done to use the full range of our authority to improve rail safety nationwide — including holding railroads accountable, supporting first responders, protecting rail workers — there is a bipartisan Rail Safety Act sitting in Congress, waiting it’s turn, right now,” Buttigieg told the country’s mayors during their annual meeting in Washington on Jan. 19.

“Let’s not allow America to get to that one-year mark and not have that safety act become law, and I think your voices need to be heard in this because mayors and your emergency services departments shouldn’t be in the dark about what’s coming through your communities,” the secretary added. “We’re doing our part with the authority we have. Congress ought to be helping, and we’re calling on Congress not to get sucked into any of the other things that seem to be commanding attention over there, but don’t add value, while this continues to sit waiting its turn.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell


A Senate committee-passed bill is designed to enhance the safe transport of freight on rail lines. The Railway Safety Act is specific to policies at the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The legislation awaits a floor vote. Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) has championed the bill’s passage. In a bipartisan resolution, the chairwoman noted: “The Feb. 3, 2023, Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, which resulted in the burning of [six] vinyl chloride tank cars and forced the evacuation of approximately 2,000 nearby residents, was a reminder of the risks posed by hazardous materials transportation.”

On the House side, Democrats are calling for passage of their version. “Congress still must act,” Rep. Emilia Sykes (D-Ohio), the bill’s co-sponsor, said last fall. “Americans can’t wait any longer — we must pass the RAIL Act now to protect communities across the nation from future train derailments.”

Emilia Sykes


President Joe Biden has expressed support for the rail legislation. After the derailment, his administration announced various programs and executive orders that respond to environmental and supply chain concerns in the Buckeye State. “It is critical that Norfolk Southern continue to be held fully accountable under the law for this disaster and continue to provide resources to address the effects in East Palestine and surrounding communities,” according to a statement last summer from the president in “Executive Order on Ensuring the People of East Palestine Are Protected Now and in the Future.”

Biden continued, “My administration has mobilized a robust, multi-agency effort to support the people of East Palestine, Ohio, and surrounding communities.”

In the meantime, policymakers have expressed interest in the findings of an upcoming National Transportation Safety Board investigation about the derailment. The NTSB’s independent report is expected to be released in the spring.

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A key stakeholder is amplifying the industry’s focus on safety. “Railroads are keeping the promises they made after East Palestine,” according to the Association of American Railroads. “In their commitment to a comprehensive safety culture, railroads have diligently undertaken proactive measures to enhance rail safety following the incident in East Palestine, Ohio, last year.”

Examples of safety initiatives the industry is touting include training 20,000 first responders in communities and increasing the frequency of detectors along key routes. According to AAR, “Railroads have deployed hundreds of new detectors, which will be complemented by additional existing and evolving technologies targeted at effectively identifying bearing defects.”