WASHINGTON — Ohio’s U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown and JD Vance are working together on legislation aimed at improving railway safety following the train derailment, in East Palestine, Ohio, last month.
Both senators talked about the need for the legislation during speeches to Ohio Farm Bureau leaders, who traveled to Washington, D.C., March 7-9.
Brown, a third term Democrat, and Vance, a Republican who is starting his first term, introduced the Railway Safety Act of 2023 on March 1. The bill is also being cosponsored by Pennsylvania’s Democratic Sens. Robert Casey and John Fetterman, as well as Republicans Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marco Rubio of Florida.
Brown told the farm bureau group that more regulation of railroad companies is needed to protect the public. The country is dominated by only a few railroad companies, he said.
“Because these railroads are so big and essentially don’t have to compete with each other, we need these rules,” he said.
The train derailment in East Palestine Feb. 3 is one of five derailments in Ohio within five months, Brown said. Other trains derailed in Sandusky, Steubenville, Ravenna and Springfield.
The East Palestine derailment has attracted the most attention, but the other derailments are concerning as well because they point to a pattern of safety problems, Brown said.
As bad as the damage has been in East Palestine, the losses could have been even worse if the derailment happened in a more populated area such as Salem, a few miles down the tracks.
“If that derailing had happened an hour earlier, it would have been in the multiples of four or five or six times the damage that was done there,” he said.
The bill would require new safety precautions for trains that carry hazardous materials.
“When these trains come into the state they don’t even have to tell anybody: the state, the local rescue squads, the firefighters, the HAZMAT firefighters, if there are any trained in that region,” Brown said. “They don’t even have to tell us they’re in the state, so we are very ill-equipped to deal with something like that.”
Besides requiring advance notification of trains carrying hazardous materials, the bill would increase safety inspections for trains, require two-person crews on trains, provide funding for rail infrastructure, create grants to train first responders and increase fines for rail companies that violate standards.
“The Brown/Vance bill will essentially say to them, you’re going to disclose when you come into the state. You’re going to fix your wheel bearings and test them and the heat monitors along the tracks,” Brown said. “Norfolk Southern wants to drive these trains with one person, one human being, in the train. They’re going to have at least a crew of two.”
Brown said he wants railroad companies to be able to make a profit, but they should not be allowed to compromise safety in the process. Norfolk Southern has laid off a third of its workers in the last 10 years while also offering stock buybacks.
“I want Norfolk Southern to make a good profit, but they don’t need to do the stock buybacks and they don’t need to keep cutting on safety like they have,” he said.
Railway safety is a bipartisan issue, Brown said, and working with Vance on the bill continues the tradition of bipartisan efforts he shared with former Sen. Rob Portman.
Besides working together on the railway safety bill, both Brown and Vance told the farm bureau group they will continue to work to help the East Palestine community recover.
There have been frustrations in the recovery effort, Vance said, and more needs to be done.
“I do think that we’re at least helping,” he said. “If we haven’t gotten the cleanup done already, we’re at least making it more likely to get done sooner. And those things obviously matter.”
Some effects are likely to linger, Vance added. He’s talked to people that raise chickens and hay, who are concerned about being able to sell their products.
“Even if all the tests say that everything is fine, they have a brand problem that they’re going to have for the next few years and we’re going to have to solve that problem,” he said. “We just can’t leave this community behind, which is what I fear a lot of people in D.C. are going to want to do.”
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