Policymakers Urge Action on Rail Safety Bill

February Derailment in Ohio Served as Impetus
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.)
“Class I freight railroads had the highest derailment rate in the past decade,” Commerce Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said in a resolution endorsed by her colleagues. (Al Drago/Bloomberg News)

A group of senators is renewing calls for a floor vote on legislation meant to improve safety across freight rail networks.

Several months after the chamber’s Commerce Committee advanced the comprehensive bipartisan bill, panel Chairwoman Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) is again leading a push to advance the measure through Congress.

In a recent resolution endorsed by her colleagues, the chairwoman indicated: “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.

“Class I freight railroads had the highest derailment rate in the past decade … more than 43,000 rail workers have been injured.”

The committee-passed Railway Safety Act, meant to promote the safe transport of freight along rail lines nationwide, targets policies at multiple agencies, such as the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The bill has received bipartisan support.

Sherrod Brown


“We built a broad, bipartisan coalition that agree on these common-sense safety measures that will finally hold big railroad companies like Norfolk Southern accountable,” Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said earlier this year. He is a co-sponsor with Ohio’s J.D. Vance (R). Specifically, the bill would mandate the use of certain defect-detection technology and ensure state agencies are equipped with additional information about the type of hazardous materials transported by rail.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has yet to schedule a floor vote on the rail bill.

Ohio Reps. Emilia Sykes (D), Bill Johnson (R)

Ohio Reps. Emilia Sykes (D) and Bill Johnson (R) 

On the House side, Rep. Emilia Sykes (D-Ohio) continues to call on colleagues to approve the Reducing Accidents In Locomotives (RAIL) Act. The measure, co-sponsored by Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), reflects provisions included in the Senate’s committee-passed version. The House bill would “create minimum time requirements that a qualified mechanical inspector must spend when inspecting a railcar or locomotive.”

“More than six months after a tragic train derailment upended the lives of innocent Ohioans in East Palestine, Congress has shamefully done nothing to address the root cause of this disaster,” Sykes said Sept. 20. “I introduced the bipartisan RAIL Act to improve rail safety and ensure no community in our nation suffers like East Palestine has, but House Republican leadership has not taken up this common-sense legislation.”

“Thankfully,” she added, “President [Joe] Biden announced additional actions today to help ensure residents of East Palestine can access critical federal resources that will aid their recovery, but Congress still must act. Americans can’t wait any longer — we must pass the RAIL Act now to protect communities across the nation from future train derailments.”

The House version has not advanced to the floor for a vote.


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Biden on Sept. 20 issued an executive order designed to respond to the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. The executive order directs the Federal Emergency Management Agency to appoint a federal disaster recovery coordinator to oversee long-term relief efforts.

“My administration is committed to supporting the people of East Palestine and all those affected in surrounding areas of Ohio and Pennsylvania every step of the way, and continuing to hold Norfolk Southern fully accountable under the law,” according to the executive order. “It is a continuing priority of my administration to hold Norfolk Southern fully accountable under the law for this disaster and any of its long-term effects and to provide additional federal assistance that the affected states, the people of East Palestine and all those affected in surrounding communities may need.”

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