Amid heightened national focus on railway safety in the wake of the East Palestine, Ohio disaster and other recent accidents, one railroad workers' union warned Friday that, while welcome, a bipartisan rail safety bill has "loopholes big enough to operate a 7,000-foot train through."
The Railway Safety Act of 2023—introduced earlier this week by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), John Fetterman (D-Pa.), and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.)—is meant to "prevent future train disasters like the derailment that devastated East Palestine."
The legislation would impose limits on freight train lengths—which in some cases currently exceed three miles. The measure was introduced a day after Democratic U.S. Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Chris Deluzio (D-Pa.) put forth a billthat would require the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to impose stricter regulations on trains carrying hazardous materials.
"We welcome greater federal oversight and a crackdown on railroads that seem all too willing to trade safety for higher profits," Eddie Hall, national president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), said in a statement.
While BLET appreciates that Brown's bill includes language stipulating that "no freight train may be operated without a two-person crew consisting of at least one appropriately qualified and certified conductor and one appropriately qualified and certified locomotive engineer," the union warned of "significant" exceptions in the proposal. For example, the bill as currently written would only apply to operations on long-distance freight trains.
BLET said it "will seek changes to the wording of the two-person crew language to tighten the loopholes."
"If the language is not precise, the Class 1 railroads will avoid the scope of the law without violating the law, yet again putting the safety of our members and American communities into harm's way," Hall argued. "You can run a freight train through the loopholes."
In 2015, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration finalized a rule requiring the installation of electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) braking systems on trains carrying hazardous materials.
Corporate lobbyists subsequently pressed the Obama administration to water down the rule, which was repealed entirely during the Trump administration's regulatory rollback spree.
Current U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieghas not made reinstating the ECP rule a priority. Instead, DOT regulators are considering a proposal backed by the Association of American Railroads, an industry lobby group, that would reduce brake testing. Five major rail unions including BLET strongly oppose the proposal.