Senators unveil rail safety bill after Ohio train derailment

Liz Brown-Kaiser and Rose Horowitch

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This video screenshot released by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) shows the site of a derailed freight train in East Palestine, Ohio.
NTSB | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

A bipartisan group of senators will introduce legislation Wednesday aimed at preventing rail disasters after the devastating derailment in East Palestine last month.

The Railway Safety Act of 2023 would create more stringent safety requirements for trains carrying hazardous materials and increase the frequency of rail car inspections. It would also require trained, two-person crews to work aboard every train carrying hazardous materials and levy heightened fines for rail carriers' wrongdoing.

The Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying vinyl chloride led to a spill of toxic chemicals. Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have called on Biden administration officials to prioritize addressing the crisis, while some Democrats have faulted former President Donald Trump with undoing rail safety rules during his tenure. Michael Regan, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, has visited the derailment site several times as nearby residents continue to suffer from ecological damage.

"It shouldn't take a massive railroad disaster for elected officials to put partisanship aside and work together for the people we serve — not corporations like Norfolk Southern," Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said in a statement.

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The bill will be introduced by Brown and his Republican counterpart, Sen. JD Vance, who represent the state where the Norfolk Southern derailment occurred. Bob Casey, D-Pa., John Fetterman, D-Pa., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., are also sponsoring the legislation. The toxic plume caused by the derailment has also affected neighboring Pennsylvania.

"Through this legislation, Congress has a real opportunity to ensure that what happened in East Palestine will never happen again," Vance said in a statement. "We owe every American the peace of mind that their community is protected from a catastrophe of this kind."

Congressional committees have jockeyed to hold hearings and take action following the derailment. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Tuesday asked Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw to participate in an upcoming hearing. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and Chris Deluzio, D.-Pa., on Tuesday introduced legislation in the House to tighten regulations on trains carrying hazardous materials.