Railroad union members are backing a bipartisan bill in Congress that would require more stringent rail safety standards in the aftermath of a 50-car train wreck in February that spilled toxic chemicals around the town of East Palestine, Ohio.
The Railway Safety Act of 2023 is intended to prevent future train disasters like that derailment, and was sponsored by U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and JD Vance (R-OH), along with U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), Marco Rubio (R-FL), John Fetterman (D-PA), and Josh Hawley (R-MO).
According to the senators, the bill would improve rail safety protocols by enhancing safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials, establishing requirements for wayside defect detectors, creating a permanent requirement for railroads to operate with at least two-person crews, increasing fines for wrongdoing committed by rail carriers, and more.
The new bill follows several years of fractious relationships between railroads, unions, and regulators. Most recently, the Senate moved in December 2022 to avert a rail strike by approving a bill that imposed a tentative labor agreement between railroads and labor unions, despite union demands for better healthcare provisions. Also in 2022, regulators with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) revived a rule that would require a minimum of two crewmembers for over-the-road railroad operations, after that rule had been dismissed during the Trump Administration.
Train workers’ union the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) said it backs the Rail Safety Act of 2023 but says its provisions don’t go far enough to fix the root causes that led to the derailment. “Right now our nation’s railroads largely self-regulate,” Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen National President Eddie Hall said in a release. “We welcome greater federal oversight and a crackdown on railroads that seem all too willing to trade safety for higher profits.”
Neither the rail company involved in the derailment, Norfolk Southern Corp., nor the rail industry group The Association of American Railroads (AAR) has released a specific statement about the bill. But both groups have pointed to the rail industry’s strong historical safety record.