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Rail unions back Railway Safety Act prompted by East Palestine derailment

Two Norfolk Southern freight trains pass in downtown East Palestine, Ohio.
Gene J. Puskar
Two Norfolk Southern freight trains pass in downtown East Palestine on February 15, 2023. After the Feb. 3, 2023, derailment, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) introduced the Railway Safety Act.

Rail unions say they support the Railway Safety Act introduced in the U.S. Senate earlier this month in response to the derailment in East Palestine.

The legislation would increase freight rail safety for trains carrying hazardous materials and increase rail inspections.

As freight rail companies cut jobs, rail unions have been warning of derailments like the one that happened in East Palestine for years, said Matt Weaver, Ohio legislative director for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees.

“Especially Railroad Workers United have been saying this is going to happen with these cuts, you know," Weaver said. "It’s very frustrating.”

Safety protocols have suffered because of the cuts, Weaver said.

“I talked to a carman a couple weeks ago who they’ve been pushing them to inspect the car in 20 seconds," Weaver said. "How is that even possible?”

While companies like Norfolk Southern continue to make profits, they're not funding safety protocols, Weaver said.

"Lots of stock buybacks from the Trump tax cuts," Weaver said, "and we're seeing man count cuts of 30%, up to 30%, from the last eight years."

The legislation has bipartisan support in the Senate, and Rep. Bill Johnson is expected to introduce a similar bill in the House. Weaver is optimistic that the bill will pass.

“Strike while the iron’s hot," Weaver said. "We’ve got good feedback from the media, good feedback from the public and honestly you know it’s kind of good feedback from the railroad to make those changes.”

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw said he supports parts of the bill. Since the derailment in East Palestine, the company has announced a six-point safety plan that would add hundreds more sensors to detect mechanical issues.

Although Weaver feels good about the legislation, he's not sure if it will represent a turning point for rail safety.

"All it takes is more campaign finance and lobbyists from the industry to influence legislators to roll back regulations, you know," Weaver said. "We've seen that."

The Trump administration rolled back an Obama-era rule that more strictly regulated rail companies. However, supporters of the recently introduced bill say it would be longer lasting than a presidential rule and harder to roll back.

"It's time for the regulators to regulate," Weaver said. "I mean, we need good, genuine, good-faith regulation to protect rail labor — all rail workers and the public."

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.