217.370.8505 cory@bletislb.org

EAST PALESTINE — With the new year here and the one-year anniversary of the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment just over a month away, legislation to avert a similar rail disaster has slowed.

Introduced March 1, by Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and J.D. Vance (R-OH) on March 1 in response to the derailment and toxic chemical release, the Railway Safety Act of 2023 still awaits a vote on the floor 11 months later.

For East Palestine residents like Misti Allison, who testified before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Hearing on the Ohio Train Derailment 20 days after the introduction of the bill, preventing another derailment is paramount.

“We can never go back to our life before this disaster, but we can make sure that no other community experiences a similar tragedy as East Palestine,” she said. “It’s time to collectively learn from this and move forward with bipartisan support so this doesn’t happen again. Let’s find a way, not another excuse.”

During her testimony, Allison called the Railway Safety Act “common sense legislation” and she urged federal lawmakers to support the bill meant to enhance and strengthen rail safety and mandate, among other things, wayside defect detectors, two-person crews and increased fines against rail carriers. It would also grant the Department of Transportation the authority to institute and modify new safety requirements and procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials like vinyl chloride.

So far, the rail industry has pushed back at significant provisions in the bill, particularly the two-person crew requirement. The American Association of Railroads (AAR) released a statement May 10, the day the Senate Commerce Committee voted to advance the Railway Safety Act, saying that the bill “falls short of its goal to rectify a current safety challenge.” The AAR stated that “challenges remain with certain provisions, including those that mandate crew staffing models, expand hazmat transportation operating requirements, micromanage detector networks, and unnecessarily broaden manual inspections.”

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, who has embraced parts of the bill, has been an outspoken critic of the two-person crew requirement, citing no link between safety and crew size and pointing out that the train that derailed in East Palestine had three crew members on board.

On the state level, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine made two-person crews mandatory for all trains that transport commodities through the state when he signed the $13.5 billion state transportation budget in March. On June 29, the day before the rule was to go into effect, the rail industry pushed back when the AAR filed suit in U.S. District Court to block the provision, arguing jurisdiction of the U.S. railways is exclusive to federal agencies.

Allison said she understands that businesses are in the business to make money but said profits should never be valued over people.

“We can, and we must, have strong businesses. But that doesn’t mean businesses should be allowed to reject safety regulations that prevent putting families at risk,” Allison said. “Americans need to be protected. And when these organizations fail to operate safely, they must be held accountable.”

Fellow East Palestine resident Jessica Conard, who was inspired into a advocacy career following the derailment and now serves as the Appalachian Director of Beyond Plastics, said if legislation to make the trains safer isn’t advanced, then restrictions on what the trains carry must be.

“If lawmakers cannot promise communities a safer railway then they all must consciously promote reductions of the hazardous and polluting chemicals they transport like vinyl chloride,” she said.

While the upheaval in the House that began with ousting of Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and the long process of replacing him, likely had some impact on the slow movement of the bill as well as other business on Capitol Hill, railway safety hasn’t been a top priority in Washington in years. The last time federal legislation addressed railway safety was with the Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008. That law mandated such things as hours of service requirements for railroad workers, positive train control implementation, standards for track inspections, certification of locomotive conductors and safety at highway-rail grade crossings. A series of hazardous train disasters which resulted in a combined 13 deaths and made hundreds ill was the catalyst to that legislation, but that was 15 years ago.

For Brown, who has made routine visits to East Palestine in the wake of the derailment, it’s been long enough.

“It’s long past time Congress stood up to the rail lobbyists and passed the bipartisan Railway Safety Act, to ensure a disaster like what happened in East Palestine does not happen again,” Brown said. “This railroad safety bill is an attempt to blunt the overreach and greed that corporate executives at the railroads have foisted upon the American public. I’m continuing to push Majority Leader (Chuck) Schumer to bring this bill to the floor and I’m making the case to my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to pass this legislation.”

Vance’s office referred to a recent interview the senator recently gave to WTOV in Steubenville when reached for comment.

“I think bringing some common sense rail safety to our country, bringing down the fact that we have way too many train crashes, we need to reduce that number of train crashes,” he told the media outlet. “This is all the Railway Safety Act is trying to do, and I think that it needs to pass.”