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What’s in the New Rail Safety Bill?

Wednesday saw the US Senate Commerce Committee vote on bipartisan rail safety legislation, the Railway Safety Act. The Senate panel, under Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (Democrat), approved the legislation, voting 16-11 to advance it further. But, despite its bipartisan backing, there are worries the bill may be quashed by Republican opposition in the Senate.

Cantwell outlined some of the changes the legislation will bring about, which includes making compulsory the use of technology to equipment failures; preventing merely perfunctory car and equipment inspections; ensuring Class A trains carrying hazardous material comply with stricter safety regulations; requiring at least two crew members to operate a train at any given time; and significantly increasing maximum civil penalties to $10m for rail safety violations.

The bill has come about as a response among lawmakers to the environmentally devasting derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3 of this year. There, 38 cars of a Norfolk-Sothern freight train derailed, of which 11 were carrying hazardous materials. The resulting environmental damage and emotional trauma suffered by East Palestine’s residents has ensured this incident made the headlines both across the country and internationally. The Ohio derailment was frequently referenced by those on the Senate panel pushing the bill. According to Cantwell, “no one should lose sleep at night worrying that railroads are cutting corners on safety and putting their communities at risk for disasters like the one in East Palestine.”

Norfolk-Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio (Gene J. Puskar / AP)

The legislation was originally introduced in March by Ohio’s Senators, Sherrod Brown (Democrat) and J.D. Vance (Republican). The latter has said how America has “allowed the rail industry to socialize the risks of their business while privatizing the rewards.” Supporters of the bill hope its bipartisan backing – to date Vance has convinced at least six Republican colleagues to join him in supporting it in the Senate, and he announced on Monday the legislation was supported by very high-profile Republicans including Donald Trump and Mitt Romney – will ensure its success going forward. This was echoed by Democrat Representative Emilia Sykes, who has helped lead the effort on the House bill. She said “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. I am glad to see a bipartisan rail safety bill progressing through the Senate, and the House must do the same.”

Republican Senator, J.D. Vance (Getty Images)

But not every Republican is a fan. The Commerce Committee’s top Republican, Senator Ted Cruz, raised concerns about the bill, describing it as “needlessly prescriptive”. He said he was worried it would leave railroads at the mercy of the US Transportation Department. This caution was echoed by the Association of American Railroads (AAR), which has stressed “challenging provisions remain that must be solved”. Sen. Cruz went on to warn the committee the legislation lacked the Republican support needed to reach the 60-vote threshold in the Senate. However, this notion has been denied by Sen. Brown on account of the cross-party support the bill has already received: “The support of the former president and the sitting president, together, will matter on this bill.”

Litigation surrounding the East Palestine derailment, which was an instrumental catalyst in the development and support of the Railway Safety Act, is ongoing. Norfolk-Southern have announced the derailment has cost them $387 million to date (mostly related to the environmental clean-up following its spillage of over a million gallons of hazardous materials), and costs are expected to rise further. The company has said it expects to be charged for “property value diminution, long-term healthcare, [and] water treatment”. CEO Alan Shaw acknowledged the railroad expects to compensate residents within five miles of the crash site if their property sells for less than it was appraised before the derailment. Regarding the bill, he said in a statement on Wednesday the railroad looks forward to continuing talks with Congress on “achieving a meaningful and effective new law.”

It remains to be seen if the House of Representatives will take up the Railway Safety Act, or if it can garner enough support to end debate in the Senate. The next step is a full Senate vote on the Railway Safety Act, likely in the coming weeks. If it passes, it will go to the House, where Republicans, who are in the majority, have expressed skepticism over increased rail regulation. This significant Republic opposition means the fate of the bill remains uncertain. However, its auspicious start, signaled by the wide bipartisan support it has received among Ohio lawmakers, indicates there may be hope yet for those demanding reform of the railroads. According to Vance, “Whether its tomorrow or next week or next year, there will be another East Palestine in this country if we do not pass the Railway Safety Act”.

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