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Opinion | Remember the Ohio train derailment? The U.S. is still waiting for fixes.

The plumes of black smoke and images of sick and dead animals after the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, have faded from the news cycle. Since the tragedy, the imperative has been on Congress to enact new freight rail rules. But that is still far away.


Freight rail carriers have vowed to upgrade their safety procedures after the tragedy. However, those actions are voluntary. A freight train derailment Monday morning in southeastern Pennsylvania, which briefly triggered evacuations, is a reminder of the dangers and unease that remain. Congress should pass basic safety requirements. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) should bring the bipartisan Railway Safety Act up for a floor vote — the sooner, the better. Much of the debate around the act has focused on its requirement that trains have a two-person crew. Industry lobbyists portray this as caving to unions. The latest iteration of the bill would allow freight operators to obtain waivers to run trains with only one crew member, a loophole that could be abused. But this is not the bill’s most important element. The Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials that derailed in Ohio had two crew members and a trainee onboard. The problem wasn’t personnel; it was faulty equipment and procedures.

A wheel bearing failed. Norfolk Southern’s detection system that was supposed to catch it was too slow. Making matters worse, many first responders didn’t have all the information about the hazardous materials on the train or sufficient training to handle them. The Railway Safety Act would help fix these problems.

The D.C. Council voted on Tuesday to stop pulling police officers out of schools, a big win for student safety. Parents and principals overwhelmingly support keeping school resource officers around because they help de-escalate violent situations. D.C. joins a growing number of jurisdictions, from Montgomery County, Md., to Denver, in reversing course after withdrawing officers from school grounds following George Floyd’s murder. Read our recent editorial on why D.C. needs SROs.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) just withdrew Virginia from a data-sharing consortium, ERIC, that made the commonwealth’s elections more secure, following Republicans in seven other states in falling prey to disinformation peddled by election deniers. Former GOP governor Robert F. McDonnell made Virginia a founding member of ERIC in 2012, and until recently conservatives touted the group as a tool to combat voter fraud. D.C. and Maryland plan to remain. Read our recent editorial on ERIC.

In Vietnam, a one-party state, democracy activist Tran Van Bang was sentenced on Friday to eight years in prison and three years probation for writing 39 Facebook posts. The court claimed he had defamed the state in his writings, according to Radio Free Asia. In the past six years, at least 60 bloggers and activists have been sentenced to between 4 and 15 years in prison under the law, Human Rights Watch found. Read more of the Editorial Board’s coverage on autocracy and Vietnam.

The Department of Homeland Security has provided details of a plan to prevent a migrant surge along the southern border. The administration would presumptively deny asylum to migrants who failed to seek it in a third country en route — unless they face “an extreme and imminent threat” of rape, kidnapping, torture or murder. Critics allege that this is akin to an illegal Trump-era policy. In fact, President Biden is acting lawfully in response to what was fast becoming an unmanageable flow at the border. Read our most recent editorial on the U.S. asylum system. Initially, the bill sought to require “defect detectors” at least every 10 miles of track. Norfolk Southern had a 20-mile gap between detectors on parts of the track near East Palestine. That made a consequential difference. By the time the alert came, it was too late to stop the train. Ohio passed a law this spring requiring detectors every 10 to 15 miles on major freight routes. As the Senate considers the federal bill, lawmakers should resist efforts to weaken a national mandate spelling out a minimum distance for detectors. Meantime, rail companies can also consider investing in even better technologies that would exceed such a standard, such as putting on trains themselves devices that can detect whether a wheel bearing is failing.

Another problem in East Palestine was that the train didn’t meet the technical definition of a “high hazard” train, even though it had 20 tank cars carrying hazardous materials, including the flammable gas vinyl chloride. “We should know when trains carrying hazardous material are coming through Ohio,” Gov. Mike DeWine (R) said. The original version of the bill required greater safety measures and transparency on more than 40 percent of rail traffic. The revised text covers about 12 percent, according to industry estimates. Senators should not further undermine this provision.

National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy called the East Palestine train derailment “100 percent preventable.” Rail companies can do better; Congress should ensure they do.


This article originally appeared on The Washington Post

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