In Fiery Shadow of New Train Disaster, Fetterman Leads Railway Accountability Act
"This bill will implement commonsense safety reforms, hold the big railway companies accountable, protect the workers who make these trains run, and help prevent future catastrophes," said the Pennsylvania Democrat.
As a train derailment and fire forced evacuations in Minnesota on Thursday, a trio of Democratic U.S. senators introduced another piece of legislation inspired by the ongoing public health and environmental disaster in and around East Palestine, Ohio.
The Railway Accountability Act—led by Sens. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio)—would build on the bipartisan Railway Safety Act introduced at the beginning of March by Brown and Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) after a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials including vinyl chloride derailed in the small Ohio community on February 3.
While welcoming "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), also warned just after the earlier bill was unveiled that "you can run a freight train through the loopholes."
The new bill is backed by unions including the Transport Workers of America (TWU), the National Conference of Firemen & Oilers (NCFO), and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers-Mechanical Division (SMART-MD).
"Communities like Darlington Township and East Palestine are too often forgotten and overlooked by leaders in Washington and executives at big companies like Norfolk Southern who only care about making their millions."
"It is an honor and a privilege to introduce my first piece of legislation, the Railway Accountability Act, following the derailment affecting East Palestine, Ohio, and Darlington Township, Pennsylvania," Fetterman said in a statement. "This bill will implement commonsense safety reforms, hold the big railway companies accountable, protect the workers who make these trains run, and help prevent future catastrophes that endanger communities near railway infrastructure."
Fetterman, who is expected to return to the Senate in mid-April after checking himself into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center last month to be treated for clinical depression, asserted that "working Pennsylvanians have more than enough to think about already—they should never have been put in this horrible situation."
"Communities like Darlington Township and East Palestine are too often forgotten and overlooked by leaders in Washington and executives at big companies like Norfolk Southern who only care about making their millions," he added. "That's why I'm proud to be working with my colleagues to stand up for these communities and make clear that we're doing everything we can to prevent a disaster like this from happening again."
As Fetterman's office summarized, the Railway Accountability Act would:
- Direct the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to examine the causes of and potential mitigation strategies for wheel-related derailments and mechanical defects, and publish potential regulations that would improve avoidance of these defects;
- Ensure that employees can safely inspect trains by prohibiting trains from being moved during brake inspections;
- Require that the mechanic that actually inspects a locomotive or rail car attests to its safety;
- Direct the FRA to review regulations relating to the operation of trains in switchyards, and direct railroads to update their plans submitted under the FRA's existing Risk Reduction Program (RRP) to incorporate considerations regarding switchyard practices;
- Require the FRA to make Class 1 railroad safety waivers public in one online location;
- Require railroads to ensure that communication checks between the front and end of a train do not fail, and that emergency brake signals reach the end of a train;
- Ensure Class 1 railroad participation in the confidential Close Call Reporting System by requiring all railroads that have paid the maximum civil penalty for a safety violation to join; and
- Ensure that railroads provide warning equipment (such as white disks, red flags, or whistles) to railroad watchmen and lookouts.
A preliminary report released in late February by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) suggests an overheated wheel bearing may have caused the disastrous derailment in Ohio. The initial findings added fuel to demands that federal lawmakers enact new rules for the rail industry.
"Rail lobbyists have fought for years to protect their profits at the expense of communities like East Palestine," Brown noted Thursday.
Casey stressed that "along with the Railway Safety Act, this bill will make freight rail safer and protect communities from preventable tragedies."
In addition to pushing those two bills, Brown, Casey, and Fetterman have responded to the East Palestine disaster by introducing the Assistance for Local Heroes During Train Crises Act and—along with other colleagues—writing to Norfolk Southern president and CEO Alan Shaw, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy, and U.S. Environmental Protection Administrator Michael Regan with various concerns and demands.