A bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate Wednesday would tighten federal oversight of trains carrying hazardous materials like the one that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio.
The measure, the Railway Safety Act of 2023, was cosponsored by Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown (D) and J.D. Vance (R) and Pennsylvania Sens. John Fetterman (D) and Bob Casey (D). Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) also cosponsored the measure.
The bill would introduce new safety requirements for trains carrying hazardous materials, such as the vinyl chloride carried by the derailed Norfolk Southern train. Going forward, such trains would be required to submit a “gas discharge” plan for all such materials. Citing fear of an explosion, first responders in East Palestine conducted a controlled burn of the materials shortly after locals were evacuating.
The measure would also transfer oversight of railroads’ heat sensors from railways to the federal government. Shortly before the Norfolk Southern train derailed, the sensors showed a wheel bearing at temperatures 200 degrees over ambient temperatures, the threshold at which they are required to brake, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. While personnel attempted to brake, they could not avert the derailment. The Senate bill would allow the federal government — rather than railroads — to set this heat threshold.
It also contains a number of items railroad unions have long demanded, including a requirement of at least a two-person crew per train. Jeremy Ferguson, president of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers Transportation Division (SMART-TD), endorsed the legislation, saying the bill “offers a chance for the nation to make the giant rail corporations take rational measures to get the industry to do what it’s designed to do — move freight through our nation safely and efficiently and be an example for the rest of the world to model.”
SMART-TD was one of the unions that voted against a tentative agreement with management last year to avert a rail strike, citing the lack of sick leave provisions. Congress backed a White House-backed bill forcing workers to accept the tentative deal, voting down an amendment that would add their sick leave demands. All of the bill’s sponsors except Vance and Fetterman, who were not yet in office, voted for the sick leave amendment.