Bipartisan support emerges for Senate rail safety bill
WASHINGTON (AP) — A bipartisan consensus that Congress should act to toughen railroad regulations emerged Wednesday as senators heard new testimony about the dangerous and fiery train derailment last month at the border between Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee peppered Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw with questions about the enhanced security measures he would support. At times, they aggressively questioned the CEO of one of the nation’s largest railroads about what could be done to prevent future derailments like the one that upended life in the village in Ohio, Illinois. east of Palestine.
Shaw has offered support for some safety improvements, including the training of emergency response teams and the phasing out of older tank car designs. But he refused to endorse several key elements of the bipartisan Rail Safety Act of 2023, which is championed by Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and JD Vance, a Republican.
The bill includes requirements that trains have crews of at least two people, expands the classification of highly dangerous flammable trains and increases fines for safety violations.
Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, said lawmakers have an opportunity “to use this horrible accident to really improve rail safety.” She predicted that a bill would be introduced in the Senate by April.
Cantwell added that the bill’s bipartisan nature, along with the committee’s recent history of reviewing rail safety legislation, would allow lawmakers to act quickly.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is also the originator of the Railway Safety Act. And in the House, a bipartisan group of Ohio lawmakers also presented a similar proposal, though top Republicans also urged caution when enacting new regulations.
“This is an opportunity for real and meaningful bipartisan cooperation,” said Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the committee’s top Republican.
The Eastern Palestine derailment has resulted in rare bipartisan cooperation in a tightly divided Senate. Democrats say they want to make sure profitable companies like Norfolk Southern invest in safety standards and labor before reaping profits. Republicans, at times urged by Vance to divert attention from big business concerns to white working-class communities like eastern Palestine, are seeking to show they can deliver for an area they accuse the Biden administration of. to neglect.
When Shaw testified before a separate Senate committee earlier this month, he highlighted the voluntary actions taken by Norfolk Southern after the derailment and refrained from endorsing any congressional action. But he appeared to concede on Wednesday that legislation was likely, saying many provisions of the Rail Safety Act now have Norfolk Southern’s “wholehearted approval”.
He also reiterated his apologies for the derailment and pledged to help rebuild eastern Palestine.
“We’re not done until we sort things out,” Shaw told the committee.
Misti Allison, a resident of eastern Palestine, testified during the hearing that the company had lost the trust of a deeply traumatized community. State and local authorities decided to release and burn toxic vinyl chloride from five tank cars after the Fed. 3 derailment, leading to the evacuation of half of the approximately 5,000 inhabitants.
“They feel like Norfolk Southern is offering breadcrumbs,” she said, describing how the derailment had haunted the city with fears of the long-term effects of the release of hazardous materials.
“My seven-year-old son asked me if he was going to die living in our own house,” Allison said. “What do I tell him?”
The senators repeatedly noted that rail safety is an issue in every state, due to the national network of railroads.
“At the end of the day, what happened in eastern Palestine could just as easily have happened in Illinois,” Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth said of her home state.
The Association of American Railroads trade group, whose CEO Ian Jefferies testified on Wednesday, says railroads are still the safest way to transport hazardous materials over land. Train derailments have also become less frequent, but there were still more than 1,000 last year, according to Federal Railroad Administration data. And as Eastern Palestine shows, even a single train derailment involving hazardous materials can be disastrous.
Jefferies underscored the industry’s commitment to voluntary safety measures, but also clarified that it had not taken a formal position on the Railway Safety Act.
The bill takes sides in a long-running disagreement between railway unions and operators by requiring train crews to continue to have two people, despite the train that derailed in eastern Palestine having a crew of three. Unions argue the railways are riskier due to job cuts in the industry over the past six years. Nearly a third of all rail jobs have been cut and train crews, they say, are tired and under pressure to carry out safety inspections in seconds.
Shaw was pressed to support a two-person requirement for crews, but refused. Instead, he said: “We are a data-driven organization and I am not aware of any data that links crew size to safety.”
Senators pushing the new security demands, like Brown of Ohio, have argued that Shaw’s position is emblematic of an industry that prioritizes efficiency and profits over security.
“The railroads want one person to work on a train that’s two or three miles long,” Brown said. “It’s frankly insane.”
Some Republicans on the committee have warned against legislation that would burden the industry. But the scenes of smoke billowing over eastern Palestine were always on the minds of lawmakers.
The committee is also studying possible changes to regulations that do not classify trains as highly flammable dangerous, as long as they fall below certain thresholds for the number of cars carrying combustible liquids. Lawmakers are looking at how local authorities are also told by rail operators what the trains are carrying.
“It was not a high-risk train,” Republican Senator Shelley Capito, R—West Virginia, said of the train that derailed in eastern Palestine, “but it contained hazardous materials that were very flammable. He just lit up the sky.