Bipartisan Railway Safety Act Heads to Senate Floor

May 10, 2023

Cantwell-led Commerce Committee approves bill to strengthen rail safety requirements, improve train inspections, boost support for first responders & increase penalties on rail companies for wrongdoing

Today, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation approved the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023 following negotiations led by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Chair of the Committee, sending the legislation to the Senate floor. The Railway Safety Act of 2023 was introduced by Ohio and Pennsylvania Sens. Sherrod Brown, J.D. Vance, Bob Casey and John Fetterman, along with Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), following the devastating train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

“This bipartisan legislation is focused on learning the lessons from East Palestine and helping us to avoid future accidents,” Sen. Cantwell said before the legislation passed 16-11. “No community should have to go through the trauma and evacuation and environmental damage that East Palestine had to go through, especially when you can prevent these from happening.”

The legislation includes key provisions championed by Sen. Cantwell to support firefighters who bravely respond to disasters like the East Palestine derailment. It also reforms the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Hazardous Materials Emergency Preparedness (HMEP) programs to ensure fire departments can purchase personal protective gear and creates a new program to make fire departments whole after responding to a derailment.

During her remarks, Sen. Cantwell outlined the lessons learned from the East Palestine derailment and key provisions of the legislation to address them:

“We learned from the East Palestine derailment that the improvement of detectors could help prevent … future derailments. This legislation requires, for the first time, railroads to use these defect detectors with more frequency,” she said.

  • For the first time, this legislation mandates that railroads use defect detectors. Railroads will be required to submit plans to the Federal Railroad Administration proving that they will deploy the defect detectors that meet standards set by DOT. The law mandates that hotbox detectors be deployed an average of every 15 miles, a reduction of the current voluntary industry practice of installing defect detectors an average of 25 miles today. If a railroad does not comply with its plan, and an accident occurs, no matter the cause, the railroad will be considered in violation of rail safety law and subject to a fine. The bill also empowers DOT to make railroads stop trains when these technologies identify something is wrong.

“We learned that not enough trains carrying hazardous material are treated with care that they deserve,” Sen. Cantwell said. “Under this legislation, more trains will be subject to stringent safety requirements, including trains carrying vinyl chloride gas. That was one of the elements in the East Palestine derailment.”

  • The Federal Railroad Administration requires trains carrying large amounts of flammable liquids (like crude oil) to comply with speed restrictions in urban areas, improve braking systems to make trains stop faster, conduct a route risk analysis to ensure railroads take the safest route and take steps to mitigate safety and security risks, and ensure railroads have a hazardous materials (hazmat) spill response plan in the event of a derailment. The bill expands the types of chemicals that trigger these specific safety requirements so that trains carrying vinyl chloride and other explosives and toxic materials, including flammable gas, poisonous gas and nuclear material, are subject to the same safety requirements as flammable liquid trains.

“People should not have to worry about what's being transported through their communities,” she added. “Governor DeWine of Ohio said ‘We don't truly know how much hazardous material is transported on Ohio rails every day, month or a year.’ This legislation requires railroads to share that information with states.”

  • The bill requires that railroads notify states about the types and frequency of trains carrying hazmat transported through the state boundaries.  Additionally, the bill requires DOT to improve railroads’ existing hazmat response plans by ensuring railroads have: (1) a DOT approved plan explaining how they will respond to a release of dangerous chemicals that high-hazard trains transport; and (2) that railroads have their own hazmat spill response teams to quickly respond to derailments and support local firefighters.

“This legislation ensures properly trained mechanics will have the time that they need to do their job right,” said Sen. Cantwell. “A Wall Street Journal investigation showed us that the current railcar inspection and maintenance practices aren't enough. Some railroads encouraged inspectors to spend as little as 30 seconds to inspect one side of a railcar. And to put it in some context, a railcar can be 65 feet long and there can be well over 100 cars.”

  • During a hearing in March, the Committee received documents showing Norfolk Southern recommended its employees complete inspections of one side of a railcar in just 30 seconds. In September 2022, DOT sent Class I railroads a letter raising concerns that railroads were not using properly trained mechanics to conduct the predeparture inspections. This bill prohibits railroads from imposing time requirements on inspectors and requires DOT to ensure railroads use trained mechanics to conduct these inspections. The bill mandates a new requirement that all railcars have a thorough inspection at least once every five years to ensure all its components are in working order.

“We're increasing the maximum fine for violating rail safety laws from $100,000 to $10 million,” Sen. Cantwell said.

  • The average penalty Class I railroads pay for a violation of rail safety law was less than $4,000 per violation in 2021. To ensure that railroads take seriously both rail safety laws and hazardous materials safety laws, including the mandates in this bill, the legislation increases the maximum statutory civil penalty from $100,000 to $10 million.

“We learned in the East Palestine incident that the conductor played a key role as a first responder. This legislation requires at least a two-man crew on board-- while the train can be as long as two miles long – and to have the person on board respond in the event of an emergency,” she said.

  • Railroads have proposed eliminating conductors from the cab of the locomotive and having them follow the train in trucks. This law creates a statutory requirement that all trains operated by Class I railroads are operated with two crewmembers.

“We learned that local firefighters need better equipment to fight hazardous materials while the Norfolk Southern is reimbursing first responders. I think everyone can agree that firefighters should never be left holding the tab. And this law makes more money available to those brave responders out of an existing program,” the Senator stated.

  • The bill makes $10 million available to DOT to reimburse first responders for overtime and equipment costs, as well as baseline health care assessments. The bill also expands the existing Hazardous Materials Emergency Preparedness grant to allow fire departments to purchase personal protective gear.

A summary of the key provisions included in the bill can be found HERE.

Read the full transcript HERE.