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Railway Safety Act is slowed not stalled, Sen. Sherrod Brown says

Two Norfolk Southern freight trains pass in downtown East Palestine, Ohio, as the cleanup continues on portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed over a week ago, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023.
Gene J. Puskar
Two Norfolk Southern freight trains pass in downtown East Palestine, Ohio, as the cleanup continues on portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed over a week ago, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023.

A sponsor of the bipartisan rail safety bill should be up for a floor vote in the United States Senate this fall. The bill is in response to the toxic train derailment in East Palestine earlier this year. Sen. Sherrod Brown believes it would have come up for a vote sooner, if not for lobbyists.

Brown introduced the Railway Safety Act with his fellow Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance in March. The bill passed out of committee in May but has seen no movement since then, but the bill isn’t dead, Brown said.

“It’s not stalled. It’s slowed, because we weren’t sure," Brown said. "We have all 51 Democrats voting yes. We have seven Republican cosponsors and publicly committed votes. We think there will be another four or five Republicans, so we’re going to bring it to the floor.”

Brown blames lobbying from Norfolk Southern and the Association of American Railroads.

“Norfolk Southern needs to stop their financial support for the freight rail industry’s lobbying against the Railway Safety Act," Brown said.

The bill ramps up regulation of trains with toxic materials, mandates new rail safety technology and requires a two-person crew on each train.

In response to a request for comment on Brown's statements Wednesday, Norfolk Southern said it's supportive of bipartisan legislation that advances rail safety. The railroad also referred back to a May statement where President and CEO Alan Shaw said, "The Committee bill contains important advancements in accident prevention, accident mitigation and accident response that will make our railroads, our employees and communities safer. We look forward to continuing our engagement with members of Congress on the issues, achieving a meaningful and effective new law and leading on safety measures within the industry,”

The American Association of Railroads referred to a statement it released when the Railway Safety Act passed out of committee. At that time, AAR urged senators to refine the legislation to focus the bill on solution driven policies that will enhance safety.

"Challenges remain with certain provisions, including those that mandate crew staffing models, expand hazmat transportation operating requirements, micromanage detector networks, and unnecessarily broaden manual inspections," President and CEO Ian Jefferies said.

A similar bill, the Reducing Accidents in Locomotives Act, has not been taken up in the House. Former rail lobbyist Sen. John Thune and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy are holding up both bills, Brown claimed.

"The number two ranked Senate Republican used to work for the railroads before he came to the Senate, but we're going to beat him on it," Brown said. "We're going to pass it, but we also know that Speaker McCarthy, the speaker of the House, is close to railroad industry and has been his whole career."

Norfolk Southern’s plan to reimburse East Palestine residents for lost home values from February’s toxic train derailment is also receiving criticism from Ohio’s senators.

The program would pay homeowners in a roughly five-mile area around the derailment site the difference between the appraised market value of their homes and the sale price, if they choose to sell and leave. But that's not enough, according to Brown.

“They’re only offering to those who sell their homes and most importantly sign away their right to benefit from any future settlement," Brown said. "You want to move out? They’ll give you a check."

Accepting the compensation would mean forgoing property damage claims as part of any lawsuits against the railroad, Norfolk Southern said.

In a press release, Vance called the program a disaster.

"It is exactly as I had feared — that there would be generosity and openness in public and penny-pinching and evasion in private," Vance said.

In Wednesday's statement, Norfolk Southern said it's committed to making it right in East Palestine and covering all costs associated with the cleanup, including remediating the derailment site, supporting the needs of the community, investing in its future, protecting drinking water, preserving home values and addressing health concerns.

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