Lawmakers have proposed multiple bills following East Palestine train derailment

New legislation introduced last week aims to strengthen rail safety by examining derailments and providing warning equipment to railroad workers two months after a Norfolk Southern train derailed, burst into flames released toxic chemicals into the air, soil and creeks in East Palestine.

The Railway Accountability Act — introduced by U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Bob Casey and John Fetterman, both Pennsylvania Democrats — would build on the Railway Safety Act proposed last month by Brown, Casey and Fetterman and Sens. JD Vance, R-Ohio, Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and Josh Hawley, R-Missouri.

The proposals follow the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, which has caused lingering concerns for residents of the village south of Youngstown near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border and called for increased scrutiny of railway regulations and reform.

“Rail lobbyists have fought for years to protect their profits at the expense of communities like East Palestine and Steubenville and Sandusky,” said Brown. “These commonsense safety measures will finally hold big railroad companies accountable, make our railroads and the towns along them safer, and prevent future tragedies, so no community has to suffer like East Palestine again.”

Brown, Casey and Fetterman also proposed the Assistance for Local Heroes During Train Crises Act in March, which would support first responders dispatched to the front lines of hazardous train derailments.

Railway Accountability Act

Under the Railway Accountability Act, the Federal Railroad Administration would examine the causes of and potential mitigation strategies for wheel-related derailments and mechanical defects. The FRA also would publish potential regulations that could improve ways to avoid those defects.

Other highlights of the proposal include:

  • Prohibiting trains from being moved during brake inspections
  • Requiring mechanics to inspect a train or rail car to attest to its safety
  • Having the FRA review regulations related to the operation of trains in switchyards and directing railroads to update plans under the Risk Reduction Program to include switchyard practice considerations
  • Requiring the FRA to make Class I railroad safety waivers public online
  • Requiring railroads to make sure communication checks between the front and end of a train don’t fail and that emergency brake signals reach the end of a train
  • Having Class I railroads participate in the Close Call Reporting System by requiring railroads that have paid the maximum civil penalty for a safety violation to join
  • Having railroads provide warning equipment — white disks, red flags, whistles — to watchmen and lookouts

The Railway Safety Act was proposed in March with bipartisan support.

The legislation aims to prevent disasters similar to East Palestine by creating new safety requirements for trains carrying hazardous materials, increasing inspections and creating requirements for defect detectors.

It would also require two trained persons on every train and for trains with hazardous materials to be scanned by hotbox detectors every 10 miles.

The bill seeks to expand HAZMAT training for local law enforcement and first responders that would be funded by increased registration fees paid by Class I railroads. It also would provide $22 million to the FRA for research and development grants for wayside defect detectors and $5 million to Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to help develop stronger safety features in tank cars.

Feds urge review of train makeup

The Federal Railroad Administration on Friday ordered railroads to reevaluate the placement of rail cars and locomotives, especially on long trains amid a rise of derailments.

The FRA issued its fourth safety advisory in the wake of the East Palestine derailment.

“Railroads must prioritize proper train makeup to maintain safety, prevent accidents, and optimize train performance,” the advisory signed by FRA Chief Safety Officer John Karl Alexy stated.

The order also urges more training for railroad crews and workers who determine the placement of rail cars and locomotives.

The advisory on Friday cited recent derailments, including the March 4 derailment in Springfield. In that case, the 210-car mixed-freight train derailed on a slope, with the heavier part of the train on a downhill grade. Hauling 17,966 tons of cargo, weight was concentrated at the head and rear of the train, the advisory stated.

“The derailment happened at the sag between ascending and descending grades, with short, empty rail cars designed to ship coiled steel being the first to derail,” the advisory said. “Buff forces peaked as the downhill portion of the train ran-in, causing the derailment of cars 70-72 and the subsequent pileup.”

Remediation efforts continue

Two months after the derailment and remediation efforts are continuing in East Palestine. As of Friday 18,900 tons of contaminated soil have been removed, with approximately 17,400 tons waiting for excavation, Gov. Mike DeWine’s office reported.

In March, Norfolk Southern and DeWine’s office announced the company is creating a new training center for first responders in Ohio.

The center will offer free training for fire first responders in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, as well as increase coordination between first responders and railroads.

The training center’s location has not been determined. In the meantime, training will take place at Norfolk Southern’s Moorman Yard in Bellevue in northern Ohio.

Norfolk Southern also is expanding its Operation Awareness & Response program, which connects first responders with training resources and information.

State, federal lawsuits filed

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office filed a 58-count civil lawsuit on federal court on March 14 against Norfolk Southern to hold the rail company financial responsible for the Feb. 3 derailment.

“Ohio shouldn’t have to bear the tremendous financial burden of Norfolk Southern’s glaring negligence,” Attorney General Dave Yost said. “The fallout from this highly preventable incident may continue for years to come, and there’s still so much we don’t know about the long-term effects on our air, water and soil.”

The federal government also has sued Norfolk Southern over the environmental damage of the derailment.

The U.S. Department of Justice is seeking to hold the company accountable for “unlawfully polluting the nation’s waterways and to ensure it pays the full cost of the environmental cleanup,” in the lawsuit filed March 30.

The suit is asking for fines under the Clean Water Act and for a judgment to hold the railroad accountable for past and future costs.

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