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Senators hopeful they can keep rail safety bill on track after East Palestine

Three months after the devastating East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment, senators are optimistic they can pass a bipartisan rail safety bill to prevent similar disasters.

A group of senators from both parties are looking to pass legislation establishing safety requirements for trains carrying hazardous material, an effort sparked by February’s derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals in the eastern Ohio community.

The Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday announced a May 10 markup of the bill, dubbed the Railway Safety Act.

Though Republicans have acknowledged the legislation may be a tough sell for some of their members, the bill could offer both parties the opportunity to pass their first major piece of bipartisan legislation this session, amid an increasingly polarized Congress.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), one of the bill’s sponsors, told The Hill last week that he believes it will have enough Republican support to pass the Senate, though he expressed concern about its fate in the House under Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

“I think we get it through the Senate. I think that [fellow Ohio Senator, Republican J.D. Vance], and I together, we’ll get enough Republicans. … I think we’ll get every Democrat, I have not polled every single one, but I think we’ll get every Democrat. We’ll get 15 or so Republicans,” Brown said.

Vance, another co-sponsor, also sounded confident about the passage of bipartisan safety legislation. Among some of the rail safety reforms that Vance said he believed would garner enough support included a “pretty solid increase in inspection requirements.”

Other Republicans also expressed optimism about the bill.

“I hope we can reach a consensus bill that enhances rail safety but at the same time doesn’t unnecessarily drive up cost or endanger the supply chain and the ability of consumers to get the goods they need,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, told The Hill.

“I think it’s in the DNA of most Republicans, including myself, to be against more regulations. But I think in this particular case, given the derailments and some of the evidence, I think this is a pretty narrowly tailored bill,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), another co-sponsor of the bill, told The Hill.

East Palestine continues to reel from a hazardous train derailment that required hundreds of residents in the eastern Ohio village to evacuate Feb. 3. Questions remain about the environmental and health safety risks posed by the train derailment, which spilled toxic chemicals including vinyl chloride, isobutylene and butyl acrylate.

But Senators face a slew of objections from the rail industry, which has consistently lobbied to defeat federal safety mandates that it says would be too costly or disruptive to commerce.

“My view is, what the railroads want is to drag this out as long as possible. And then, hopefully, the public pressure will decrease,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), one of the bill’s top GOP backers, told The Hill. “So, am I worried about it? Yes, I am worried about it.”

This time around, the industry insists it isn’t opposed to the bipartisan bill. Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw has voiced support for some of its safety measures, including mandating more frequent use of wayside sensors that can detect whether a railcar is overheating.

“I have been personally engaged in Washington to support specific federal legislative provisions to enhance safety,” Shaw said on an earnings call last week.

Still, the industry is pushing lawmakers to modify key safety provisions and remove language mandating two-person crews, against the wishes of conductors and engineers who say it’s unsafe to operate a train alone.

“We primarily believe policy should seek to address a specific need,” the Association of American Railroads told The Hill, noting that the East Palestine train had a three-person crew.

The Brown-Vance bill includes other measures the industry has long opposed, including train size limits and stronger inspection requirements. It would also increase fines on railroads for safety violations. Labor unions are lobbying lawmakers to keep those rules intact.

“I feel confident that there will be legislation that gets moved, certainly out of the Senate,” said Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department. “What we’re focused on is ensuring that it has some real teeth to it, and it does actually make meaningful strides and safety in the railroads.”

The impact could hinge on how strong the bill’s language is. Rail workers worry that the bill is loaded with exemptions — and that it would give the Department of Transportation broad leeway to craft and enforce safety rules.

“I think we’ll see an opportunity to have it improved, and certainly our opponents will have an opportunity to try and water down as much as they can,” Regan said.

The rail industry is a lobbying powerhouse on Capitol Hill. Rail companies successfully pushed lawmakers to unravel Obama-administration regulations that mandated advanced braking systems on trains carrying flammable liquids and required anti-collision technology, among other rules.

The U.S. economy relies heavily on freight rail to transport food, energy and consumer products, giving the industry considerable leverage. Its power was on full display late last year, when Congress blocked railroad workers from striking for better pay and working conditions.

The industry spent more than $480 million on federal lobbying over the last two decades. Norfolk Southern spent $620,000 on lobbying in the first quarter of 2023, more than double the same period last year, according to research group OpenSecrets.

The bipartisan rail safety legislation will offer the chance for senators to directly go toe-to-toe with the rail lobbying industry — and to push through one of this session’s first major pieces of bipartisan legislation.

Despite its uncertain timeline, senators say the bill’s existence and possible passage is cause for optimism.

“I think it’s significant that we have that much bipartisan support from three members of their caucus upon introduction,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), a fellow co-sponsor of the bill, told The Hill last week, noting that “they’re concerned as well about providing a lot more safety and holding the rail companies accountable.”

“The way I view the bill is those two words: safety and accountability. And I think they’re concerned about it. … That kind of consensus doesn’t always happen around here,” Casey added.