A Norfolk Southern train passes through the center of the village of East Palestine, Ohio, in February after a derailment that forced mass evacuations from the area. A Norfolk Southern train derailed in the town, spilling hazardous chemicals on February 3. Photo by Aaron Josefczyk/UPI | License Photo
March 30 (UPI) -- Three Democratic Senators on Thursday introduced a third bill this session relating to railway safety in response to recent high-profile train derailments in East Palestine, Ohio, and Darlington Township, Pa.
Sens. John Fetterman and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio co-wrote the Railway Accountability Act, which would install new oversight for the railroad industry. It is the first piece of legislation introduced by Fetterman.
The bill directs the Federal Railroad Administration to research derailments caused by wheel-related issues and other mechanical defects. The FRA would also review its regulations overseeing switchyard processes and update its Risk Reduction Program with new switchyard best practices. All railroads would be required to use a confidential Close Call Reporting System that would be overseen by the FRA and NASA.
"This bill will implement commonsense safety reforms, hold the big railway companies accountable, protect the workers who make these trains run, and help prevent future catastrophes that endanger communities near railway infrastructure," Fetterman said in a statement.
There were no Republican sponsors for the bill as of Thursday, but a spokesperson for Brown said he expects it eventually will receive the support of at least 20 GOP senators.
"We don't see any major hurdles," spokesperson Diop Harris said. "We have more than a handful of industry partners that are in support of the bill. Members on the labor and industry sides want to see this happen. The only ones opposing are CEOs."
Among the industry and labor organizations that have thrown their support behind the act are unions such as the Transport Workers of America, National Conference of Firemen & Oilers, and International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers-Mechanical Division.
Other railway legislation has received bipartisan support in this congressional session, notably the Railway Safety Act, in which Brown was joined by Republican and fellow Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance. That act means to add stricter safety requirements for trains carrying hazardous materials, increase the frequency of inspections and require at least a two-person crew to work on trains carrying hazardous materials.
"I would say the hidden subtext is there's a good relationship that's budding and this is sort of indicative that bipartisanship is alive," Brown's spokesperson Harris said.
As lawmakers look to increase oversight on the railroad industry, it is projected to experience significant market growth through 2027. TechNavio, a market research firm based in London, projects that the rail freight transportation market will grow by more than $42 billion in North America. The growth will be spurred on by the low cost of freight and road transportation costs being six to seven times less energy efficient.
Earlier this month, Sens. Fetterman, Casey and Brown also worked together on the Assistance for Local Heroes During Train Crises Act, which requires train companies to fund disaster responses to train derailments by paying municipalities directly.
Norfolk Southern has supported cleanup efforts in Ohio and Pennsylvania and pledged funding to the communities affected by its trains derailing. When testifying to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation last week, CEO Alan Shaw said the air and drinking water in East Palestine are safe. However, illness to both cleanup crew members and residents have been widely reported.
Shaw said his company has committed to $24 million in either investments or reimbursements to the communities affected to date.
"I've met with residents of the community. I've heard their concerns, and I understand their worry," Shaw testified. "Their feedback has informed our approach. Norfolk Southern is working around the clock to remediate the remaining issues and monitor for any impact on public health and the environment."
Norfolk Southern did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the Railway Accountability Act.