Congress Addresses Freight Safety Proposals

Members Also Respond to Ohio Train Derailment
Sen. Maria Cantwell
Sen. Maria Cantwell at a past hearing. (Al Drago/Bloomberg News)

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In reviewing the connectivity of the country’s supply chain, the leader of the freight policy committee in the Senate called for modernizing transportation systems to improve safety.

At a hearing March 22, Commerce Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) called on colleagues to support proposals designed to upgrade tools and technologies essential to freight corridors.

“We need to invest in the modernization of equipment that will provide the safety we need,” Cantwell said as her committee examined the aftermath of a Norfolk Southern train derailment Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio.

“I believe that our committee can work in a bipartisan fashion to improve rail safety. But it shouldn’t go unnoticed that the same issues are plaguing us in other areas of transportation,” the chairwoman further emphasized. “If you want to have the safest system, you have to have the most modernized equipment, the most minimal of workforce standards and you have to continue to improve safety.”

Cantwell also pointed to bipartisan legislation introduced by members of Ohio’s delegation in the Senate that seeks to prevent train derailments via the adoption of new safety standards. The Railway Safety Act of 2023 specifically proposes certain requirements and directives for trains transporting hazardous materials. A vote on the legislation in the chamber has not been scheduled.

“Earlier this month, Norfolk Southern issued a six-point plan of modest safety improvements. We don’t need a voluntary plan. We need real safety rules. We need the Railway Safety Act. Our bill is a common-sense, bipartisan plan,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the bill’s co-sponsor, told the Commerce panel.

“This is an industry that was created by land grants and subsidies from the federal government in the first place, and enjoys a host of special privileges currently, not least of which was the recent congressionally mandated termination of a railroad strike,” Sen. JD Vance (R-Ohio) added during testimony before the panel.

He joined Brown in co-sponsoring the comprehensive legislation.

“Enacting modest advances in safety regulation after a disaster of the magnitude of East Palestine will steer federal policy away from the current status quo,” Vance said, “which concentrates reward in the hands of the railroads while socializing the risk of their cargoes and practices on to everyone else.”

Commerce Committee ranking member Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) expressed interest in a comprehensive bill that would take aim at freight rail operations.

Ted Cruz


“I applaud [Vance] and I applaud Sen. Brown for focusing on their constituents, and I look forward to continuing to work closely with both you and with the chairwoman on a bipartisan, serious rail safety package,” the Texas Republican affirmed.

The Ohio senators have the backing of President Joe Biden, who pressed the chamber to advance their measure.

“This bill will make important progress,” Biden said March 2. “And we need to do even more, like require state-of-the art braking systems, provide more funding for federal safety inspections, invest in worker safety, fortify state emergency management and response, and hold companies like Norfolk Southern accountable not just for the immediate damage, but also the long-term health and economic damage to communities like East Palestine.”

Association of American Railroads CEO Ian Jefferies, appearing before the Commerce Committee, offered perspective from an industry he said is dedicated to the safe transport of freight.

“It is unfortunate that, in the aftermath of the accident in East Palestine, some policymakers, pundits and others have asserted that railroads broadly oppose increased safety regulations. This is categorically false,” he said. “Railroads have consistently advocated, and continue to advocate, for data-driven solutions that would effectively increase the safety of the rail network.”

Ian Jefferies


On the House side, Ohio Reps. Bill Johnson (R) and Emilia Sykes (D) introduced the Reducing Accidents in Locomotives (RAIL) Act, in response to the derailment in their home state. The measure would, among other things, direct the Federal Railroad Administration to consider updates to train length and track standards.

“The East Palestine train derailment has upended the lives of those living in East Palestine and the surrounding region. It is imperative that Congress swiftly works to strengthen our nation’s railway safety standards,” Johnson said in a statement accompanying the bill’s introduction March 17. It awaits consideration.

“Public safety transcends politics and district boundaries,” Sykes added, “which is why I am proud to work with Rep. Johnson on bipartisan, common-sense legislation to prevent future train derailment disasters like we have seen in East Palestine and across the United States.”

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