Senate Panel OKs Rail Safety Bill In Wake of Ohio Derailment

Legislation Is Designed to Promote Safe Transport of Freight
Norfolk Southern freight train
A Norfolk Southern freight train makes it way through Homestead, Pa. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)

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Congressional transportation policymakers are considering legislation meant to enhance safety and efficiency operations along freight rail corridors.

This summer, senators are expected to debate a comprehensive update of freight rail programs after a committee advanced the measure this month.

The Railway Safety Act, designed to promote the safe transport of freight along rail lines, targets guidance at agencies, such as the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

The bill, which the Senate Commerce Committee approved by a 16-11 vote, came in response to a Norfolk Southern freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, earlier this year. Its sponsors include Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown (D) and J.D. Vance (R).

Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown, left, JD Vance

Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown (D), left, and JD Vance (R) 

Specifically, the bill would mandate the use of certain defect-detection technology as well as equip state agencies with additional information regarding the type of hazardous materials transported by rail.

“We built a broad, bipartisan coalition that agree on these commonsense safety measures that will finally hold big railroad companies like Norfolk Southern accountable,” Brown said May 10.

“I’ll continue working with members of both parties to get this done and make sure disastrous derailments like the one in East Palestine never happen again,” the Ohio Democrat added.

Sen. Maria Cantwell


“This bipartisan legislation is focused on learning the lessons from East Palestine and helping us to avoid future accidents,” committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said in a separate statement. “No community should have to go through the trauma and evacuation and environmental damage that East Palestine had to go through, especially when you can prevent these from happening.”

The bill’s floor consideration has yet to be scheduled by Democratic leaders. Shortly after its introduction, President Joe Biden observed, “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.”

On the House side, Rep. Emilia Sykes (D-Ohio) called on colleagues to approve the Reducing Accidents In Locomotives ( RAIL) Act. The measure, co-sponsored by Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), mirrors the Senate committee-passed bill.

I am glad to see a bipartisan rail safety bill progressing through the Senate, and the House must do the same.

Rep. Emilia Sykes (D-Ohio)

Rep. Emilia Sykes (D-Ohio)

“Americans across the political spectrum, including the former president and the Biden-Harris administration, all agree — we must pass commonsense rail safety legislation to prevent future train derailments and keep our communities safe,” Sykes said.

Mural in East Palestine, Ohio

Children run past a mural in East Palestine, Ohio. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

“I am glad to see a bipartisan rail safety bill progressing through the Senate, and the House must do the same. Ohio Democrats and Republicans came together to introduce the bipartisan RAIL Act, now it’s time for the House Republican majority to pass the RAIL Act to protect Ohioans and communities across the country,” she added.

Relatedly, Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee introduced legislation that would provide seven days of paid sick leave to railroad workers. The Freight Rail Workforce Health and Safety Act is meant to address workforce quality of life concerns.


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“Every American worker should have the right to paid sick leave,” Payne said. “I am disappointed that the railroad industry did not provide this benefit on their own, especially when you consider it provides this benefit to railroad management.

"These workers risked their health during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep food and medicine on store shelves. They deserve paid leave to care for their own health. When employees come to work sick, they threaten the health and safety of their co-workers.”

Consideration in committee of the House bills has yet to be scheduled.

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