Johnson sponsors House bill to amp up railroad safety

U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, whose district includes East Palestine, introduced bipartisan legislation to improve rail safety in reaction to the Feb. 3 train derailment disaster in the Columbiana County village that resulted in the release of toxic chemicals.

The Reducing Accidents in Locomotives (RAIL) Act was proposed Friday in the U.S. House by Johnson, R-Marietta, and U.S. Rep. Emilia Strong Sykes, D-Akron.

If approved, the bill would direct the Federal Rail Administration, in conjunction with the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board investigation into rail rules as a result of the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, to recommend changes to how the country’s rail system operates including train length, weight to speed and track standards.

The bill also would increase funding for hazardous materials training for first responders, increase maximum penalties for violations of rail safety regulations, increase inspections of all trains — including those carrying hazardous materials such as the derailed train in East Palestine — and audit federal rail inspection programs.

“It is imperative that Congress swiftly works to strengthen our nation’s railway safety standards,” said Johnson, whose district includes all of Mahoning and Columbiana counties. “The bipartisan RAIL Act would bring forth effective and responsible changes to the way the rail industry operates to help prevent railway accidents and keep communities across America safe.”

The bill has similarities to the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023 introduced in the Senate by Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland, and J.D. Vance, R-Cincinnati.

Vance called the Johnson-Sykes proposal “a great bill” and “a huge development for improving rail safety in this country.”

The Senate bill wants to enhance safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials as well as require railroads to create disaster plans and tell emergency response commissions what hazardous materials are going through their states. It also establishes requirements for wayside defect detectors, creates a permanent requirement for railroads to operate with at least two-person crews and increases fines for wrongdoing by rail carriers.

The Johnson-Sykes bill differs from the Senate proposal by putting guardrails on the U.S. Department of Transportation to also involve the FRA in making recommendations, calls for the phase-out of tanker cars by 2028 while the Senate bill wants them eliminated by 2025, and it adds regulations on placards to ensure they can withstand the heat of a fire.

The House bill also eliminates the two-person crew requirement as the federal DOT is in the rule-making process on that and there were three people on the East Palestine derailment so that wouldn’t have impacted that incident, according to Johnson’s office.

The Feb. 3 derailment in East Palestine and a subsequent controlled explosion of five cars resulted in toxic chemicals going into the environment.

Federal and state environmental officials say the air and drinking water in East Palestine are safe. Some nearby streams were contaminated, and a number of people have complained about rashes, headaches and other medical ailments.

The state filed a 58-count federal lawsuit Tuesday against Norfolk Southern contending the railroad company violated numerous state and federal environmental laws in addition to common law negligence, common law public nuisance and common law trespass.

Ohio ranks fourth in the United States for serious train accidents and hazardous material spills, Johnson’s statement said. From January 2019 to November 2022, there were 281 train accidents in Ohio, his office said.

Norfolk Southern’s accident rate has increased by 80 percent over the past 10 years and includes 20 derailments with chemical spills since 2015, according to the state’s lawsuit against the company.

Sykes said Friday, “The RAIL Act will implement effective measures to keep our communities safe, hold railroad corporations accountable and ensure that no American living close to our 140,000 miles of railroad track has to worry about the threat of a toxic derailment in their backyard.”

The four other House Democrats from Ohio and five of the nine other House Republicans from the state — including U.S. Rep. Dave Joyce, R-Bainbridge, whose district includes Trumbull County — signed on as co-sponsors.

The U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Environment, Manufacturing and Critical Materials — which has Johnson as its chairman — is having a March 28 hearing on the environmental response to the East Palestine derailment.




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