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The Ohio derailment is spurring Congress to actually do something about train safety

A group of senators have quickly come together with a bill that could change the way the rail industry operates.

An EPA worker looks for signs of fish and agitates the water in a creek to check for chemicals settled at the bottom, following the train derailment on February 20, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio.
Michael Swensen/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

In the wake of the train derailment and toxic spill in East Palestine, Ohio, last month, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill to provide more oversight over railroad carriers and improve industry safety regulations with the aim of preventing future accidents.

On February 3, a freight train carrying five tank cars of the toxic chemical vinyl chloride derailed and ignited, prompting first responders to order an evacuation of the surrounding area. A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board found that a wheel bearing severely overheated immediately before the accident, and while the train braked after detectors picked up the hotter than normal temperatures, it did so too late and through no apparent fault of the workers onboard.

It’s hard to know yet where exactly it went wrong in the chain of command, from the private rail companies that preside over their own maintenance and inspections to the policymakers who regulate them. But whoever is to blame, residents of East Palestine and surrounding communities in Pennsylvania where the toxic fumes have now spread are still complaining of ailments ranging from rashes to bronchitis and have been instructed to monitor their health long-term.

Though both parties have been pointing fingers at each other over the accident, the bill is a compromise among Republican Sens. J.D. Vance (Ohio), Marco Rubio (Florida), and Josh Hawley (Missouri), and Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), and Bob Casey and John Fetterman (both of Pennsylvania). The bill has earned praise from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, but it’s not clear whether it will get the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate or pass the GOP-controlled House.

In a video posted to Twitter, Sen. Brown blamed railroad executives including those at Norfolk Southern, the operator of the train that derailed in East Palestine, for failing to appropriately invest in train safety and for laying off workers while spending billions on stock buybacks.

“We know that means more train derailments, less safe trains. It means that in too many cases, hazardous materials end up in the water or in the air the way they have in East Palestine. This bill will begin to fix this and especially hold Norfolk Southern accountable,” he said.

What’s in the bill — and what’s not

The bill, known as the Railway Safety Act of 2023, adopts many of the reforms that the Biden administration has called for. It would require rail carriers to notify emergency authorities when transporting hazardous materials; develop a plan in the event that gas such as vinyl chloride is discharged; and mitigate blocked railroad crossings due to train delays.

It would introduce regulations requiring “well-trained, two person crews aboard every train” and around train length and weight, route selection, speed restrictions, track standards, maintenance, issue detection and more. In the East Palestine accident, detectors didn’t trip until moments before the derailment. Rail companies that fail to comply would face higher maximum fines under the bill.

The bill also boosts funding for HAZMAT training, for research and development into tank car safety features, and for the Federal Railroad Administration generally.

It’s hard to say whether those measures would have stopped the East Palestine accident from happening. But they might have allowed workers to catch malfunctions early, and keep them from happening in the first place with preventive maintenance on the train and track.

While the bill makes strides in improving safety regulations, it doesn’t include everything on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s wishlist. For one, he has asked rail carriers to “join a close call reporting system that protects whistleblowers who spot issues that could lead to accidents,” in which only one freight rail company currently participates voluntarily. (Rail carriers have previously cited concerns about confidentiality of the data and their own internal safety reporting systems as reasons for not participating.)

The bill also doesn’t include any protections for railroad workers, who threatened to go on strike in December amid complaints of grueling conditions with little work-life balance. They have reported being on call 24/7 every day of the year, unable to call in sick or even go to the doctor. That month, President Joe Biden reluctantly signed legislation to avert a strike, which forced unions to accept a contract that did not include paid sick days — a major sticking point in the negotiations. Offering the 15 paid sick days demanded by unions would have forced carriers, including Norfolk Southern, to hire more workers, cutting into their profits. But Rubio and Vance have questioned whether spreading these workers too thin may have contributed to the safety failures that led to the East Palestine accident.

Who is to blame for the East Palestine accident?

Both Republicans and Democrats are blaming each other for the policy gaps that allowed the East Palestine accident to occur.

Though Buttigieg has faced attacks from the right amid pandemic supply chain disruptions and a federal aviation safety system failure in January, the criticism has reached a whole new level since the East Palestine accident. Even while co-sponsoring bipartisan reforms, Vance has criticized Buttigieg for failing to appear at the scene of the accident for 20 days. House Republicans have even introduced a resolution calling on Buttigieg to resign.

“Secretary Buttigieg has seemed more interested in pursuing press coverage for woke initiatives and climate nonsense than in attending to the basic elements of his day job,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor.

For his part, Buttigieg has contended that the Trump administration bears responsibility for rolling back regulations that required regular safety audits and fast-braking trains to carry flammable materials.

“I heard [former President Donald Trump] say he had nothing to do with it, even though it was in his administration. So, if he had nothing to do with it and they did it in his administration against his will, maybe he can come out and say that he supports us moving in a different direction,” Buttigieg said while visiting East Palestine.

As my colleague Ben Jacobs writes, Trump’s decision to visit East Palestine last month shows that Republicans have seized on the accident not just as a vehicle to attack the Biden administration, but also as an “opportunity for the GOP’s populist wing to further break from party orthodoxy and target corporate America.”

The White House has also criticized Republicans for pressuring the Federal Railroad Administration to rely more heavily on automated track inspection over manual inspections and for proposing to slash funding for chemical spill cleanup.

In light of the vitriol surrounding the accident, it’s a wonder that the bipartisan group could reach any kind of agreement on reforms. But it seems to have been spearheaded by an unlikely partnership between the two Ohio senators: Brown, a progressive, and Vance, a pro-Trump freshman.

“[Vance has] been nothing but cooperative on this,” Brown told Politico.