The Lead

Pa.’s Casey, Fetterman join bill aimed at preventing future train derailments

By: - March 1, 2023 4:25 pm
Aerial view of the train derailment wreckage in East Palestine. (Screenshot from NTSB B-roll recorded Feb. 5, 2023)

Aerial view of the train derailment wreckage in East Palestine, Ohio, Feb. 5, 2023. (NTSB).

U.S. Sens. Bob Casey and John Fetterman of Pennsylvania joined a bipartisan group of senators on Wednesday introducing new legislation aimed at preventing future freight train derailments like the one last month in East Palestine, Ohio. 

Darlington Township, Pennsylvania was also affected by the wreck of the Norfolk Southern train that carried hazardous materials including vinyl chloride. Residents have raised concerns about how the air, water, and soil in the area were affected after Norfolk Southern conducted a controlled release of vinyl chloride in the days following the derailment, claiming it was necessary to avoid an explosion. 

In a statement, the Pennsylvania Democrats said the bill, christened the “Railway Safety Act of 2023,” will “take key steps to improve rail safety protocols, such as enhancing safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials,” increasing fines for rail carriers who violate rules, and requiring railroads to operate with crews of at least two people. 

Rail carriers would also be required to give advance notice to state emergency response officials about what materials the trains are transporting. Trains carrying hazardous materials would be required to be scanned by hotbox detectors every 10 miles, to determine if a train is overheating. At present, hotboxes are stationed about every 20 miles.

According to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board, the hotbox detectors that the Norfolk Southern train passed showed it was heating up, but no alarms sounded because it did not pass the railroad’s safety limits.

U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, JD Vance, R-Ohio, Marco Rubio R-Fla., and Josh Hawley R-Mo., are also sponsors of the bill.

“The Norfolk Southern train derailment left Pennsylvania and Ohio families, businesses, and first responders grappling with a disaster that spilled hazardous materials in their community. It shouldn’t have happened here and it shouldn’t happen anywhere else in America,” Casey said in a statement. “The Railway Safety Act will make freight rail safer, hold rail companies accountable for putting communities and workers in harm’s way, and protect people over profits.”

But the bill leaves many decisions about proposed safety regulations to the US Department of Transportation by “strengthening its oversight,” according to a fact sheet released by Brown’s office. 

The legislation states that the Transportation Secretary will issue new or modified regulations within a year of the bill’s passage to establish safety requirements for high hazard flammable trains (HHFT). 

In addition, the bill would authorize $27 million to be invested “in the next generation of safety improvements.” 

Of that amount, $22 million would go to the Federal Railroad Administration “for research and development grants for wayside defect detectors,” and $5 million to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration “for expenses related to the development of stronger, safer, tank cars, valves for tank cars, and other tank car safety features.”

The announcement comes a day after similar, more strict legislation was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives; U.S. Reps. Chris Deluizo D-17th District, and Ro Khanna, D-Calif., introduced the DERAIL Act on Tuesday. 

That bill would expand the definition of trains considered to be HHFT, and would lower the threshold for HHFT; instead of a train needing to carry hazardous material in at least 20 consecutive cars or 35 cars total, which is the current Department of Transportation requirement, the bill would decrease the number to one rail car. 

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Kim Lyons
Kim Lyons

Kim Lyons is a veteran western Pennsylvania journalist who has covered people and trends in politics and business for local and national publications. Follow her on Threads @social_kimly