WASHINGTON – A bipartisan consensus that Congress should act to toughen regulations on railroads emerged Wednesday as senators heard fresh testimony on the fiery hazardous train derailment last month on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.
Both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee peppered Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw with questions about what enhanced safety measures he would support. At times they aggressively questioned the CEO of one of the nation's largest railroads on what could be done to prevent future derailments like the one that has upended life in the Ohio village of East Palestine.
Shaw offered support for some safety enhancements, including training for emergency response crews and phasing out older tank car models. But he declined to endorse several key parts of the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023, which is being championed by Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and JD Vance, a Republican.
The bill includes requirements that trains have crews of at least two people, expands the classification for highly hazardous flammable trains and increases fines for safety violations.
Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, said lawmakers have an opportunity to “use the horrible accident to really improve rail safety.” She predicted a bill would advance to the Senate floor by April.
Cantwell added the bipartisan nature of the bill, as well as the committee's recent history of considering railway safety legislation, would make it possible for lawmakers to act quickly.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is also behind the Railway Safety Act. And in the House, a bipartisan group of Ohio lawmakers has also introduced a similar proposal, though top Republicans have also urged caution on enacting fresh regulations.
“It is an opportunity for real and meaningful bipartisan cooperation,” said Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the committee's top Republican.
The East Palestine derailment has given rise to rare bipartisan cooperation in the closely-divided Senate. Democrats say they want to ensure profitable corporations like Norfolk Southern invest in safety standards and workforce before reaping profits. Republicans, at times urged by Vance to shift attention from the concerns of big business towards white, working-class communities like East Palestine, are looking to show they can deliver for an area they accuse the Biden administration of overlooking.
When Shaw testified before a separate Senate committee earlier this month, he emphasized the voluntary steps Norfolk Southern are taking after the derailment and stopped short of endorsing any action by Congress. But he appeared to concede Wednesday that legislation was likely, saying there are many provisions of the Railway Safety Act that now have Norfolk Southern's “full-throated endorsement.”
He also reiterated apologies for the derailment and committed to aiding East Palestine's recovery.
“We won’t be finished until we make this right,” Shaw told the committee.
Misti Allison, an East Palestine resident, testified at the hearing that the company has lost the trust of a deeply traumatized community. State and local officials decided to release and burn toxic vinyl chloride from five tanker cars after the Fed. 3 derailment, prompting the evacuation of half of the roughly 5,000 residents.
“They feel like Norfolk Southern is offering breadcrumbs,” she said, describing how the derailment had haunted the town with fears of the long-term effects of the release of hazardous materials.
“My seven-year-old has asked me if he is going to die from living in our own home," Allison said. "What do I tell him?”
Senators repeatedly noted that railway safety is an issue in every state, due to the national network of tracks.
“The bottom line is that what happened in East Palestine could have just as easily happened in Illinois," Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth said of her home state.
The Association of American Railroads trade group, whose CEO Ian Jefferies testified Wednesday, says that railroads are still the safest way to transport hazardous material over land. Train derailments have also been getting less common, but there were still more than 1,000 last year, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration. And as East Palestine shows, even a single train derailment involving hazardous materials can be disastrous.
Jefferies emphasized the industry's commitment to voluntary safety measures, but also clarified that it has not officially taken a position on the Railway Safety Act.
The bill takes sides in a long-running disagreement between railroad worker unions and operators by requiring train crews to continue to have two people, although the train that derailed in East Palestine had a three-person crew. Unions argue that railroads are riskier because of job cuts in the industry over the past six years. Nearly one-third of all rail jobs were eliminated and train crews, they say, are fatigued and under pressure to perform safety inspections in a matter of seconds.
Shaw was pressed to support a two-person requirement for crews, but declined. Instead, he said, “We are a data-driven organization and I’m not aware of any data that links crew size with safety.”
Senators pushing the new safety requirements, like Ohio's Brown, argued Shaw's stance is emblematic of an industry that is putting efficiency and profits over safety.
"Railroads want only one person working on a train that is two or three miles long," Brown said. “That's frankly crazy.”
Some Republicans on the committee cautioned against legislation that would burden the industry. But the scenes of billowing smoke above East Palestine were still on the minds of lawmakers.
The committee is also looking at possible changes to regulations that don't classify trains as high hazardous flammable, so long as they fall under certain thresholds for the number of railcars carrying combustible liquids. Lawmakers are examining how local authorities are informed by railroad operators about what trains are carrying as well.
“It wasn’t a high-hazard train,” Republican Sen. Shelley Capito, R--West Virginia said of the train that derailed in East Palestine, “but it had hazard material that was very flammable. It just lit up the sky.”