A bipartisan group of senators is introducing a new bill aimed at shoring up rail safety in the aftermath of the toxic Norfolk Southern train derailment disaster in East Palestine, Ohio.
The introduction of the legislation on Wednesday comes ahead of a critical hearing set for next week with Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, who has agreed to testify before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, according to a source familiar with the matter.
The Railway Safety Act of 2023 will be introduced by Republican Sens. JD Vance of Ohio, Marco Rubio of Florida and Josh Hawley of Missouri, and Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Bob Casey and John Fetterman of Pennsylvania.
The bill includes a number of provisions to boost safety procedures to prevent future incidents, including “new safety requirements and procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials like vinyl chloride,” a requirement for advance notice from railways to state emergency response officials about what their trains are carrying, requirements to prevent blocked railway crossings and new rules for train size and weight, according to a statement from the senators.
The bill also addresses the risk of wheel bearing failures by ramping up detection and inspection. It has a provision requiring “well-trained, two person crews aboard every train.” And it boosts the maximum fines for rail carriers for wrongdoing.
The legislation also increases grants for HAZMAT training and Federal Railroad Administration research and development, as well as funding for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s development of tank car safety features.
The Biden administration has advocated for similar reforms to the rail industry, calling for congressional action as it faces criticism of its handling of the derailment.
“We’re focusing on lessons learned when it comes to rail safety,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN on Tuesday, shifting blame to the rail industry for “(wielding) a lot of power in Washington.”
Buttigieg pointed to specific legislative actions the administration is looking for: raising the cap on fines for rail companies for safety violations, accelerating the timeline for bringing in fortified tank cars that are less likely to spill when there’s a derailment, and giving the Transportation Department “a freer hand on things like breaking regulations and regulations on hazardous material transportation.”
Buttigieg has also called on rail companies to “join a close call reporting system that protects whistleblowers who spot issues that could lead to accidents,” noting that as of “right now, not one freight railroad company participates.”
This story has been updated with additional developments.