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Vance: Rail safety legislation is not ‘big government’

Legislation follows Ohio derailment of toxic-laden train

“You cannot, on the one hand, beg the government to bail you out of a labor dispute three months ago and then say that it's ‘big government’ to have proper safety standards,” said Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio,
“You cannot, on the one hand, beg the government to bail you out of a labor dispute three months ago and then say that it's ‘big government’ to have proper safety standards,” said Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Ohio Republican Sen. J.D. Vance attacked the rail industry for criticizing a safety bill he co-sponsored with Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, amid worries among others in the GOP that the legislation could put too many regulations on railroads.

The bill would require the Transportation Department to establish new safety regulations for trains carrying hazardous materials that are not classified as “high-hazard flammable.” Its provisions would require railroads to notify states when they are passing through, limit train length and restrict speeds. 

The legislation is in response to February’s Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that spilled toxic chemicals into the surrounding community’s soil, water and air. 

“You cannot, on the one hand, beg the government to bail you out of a labor dispute three months ago and then say that it’s ‘big government’ to have proper safety standards,” Vance said, referring to congressional passage of a rail union agreement in November, during a Wednesday hearing. “It’s a ridiculous argument. It doesn’t pass the smell test.”

The legislation would also require that all trains have a minimum of two crew members aboard — a rule that Norfolk Southern has lobbied against in the past — and would increase the maximum fine that DOT can issue a rail company for safety violations from $225,000 to 1 percent of a railroad’s annual operating income. Norfolk Southern reported a record operating income in 2022 of $4.8 billion. Under the bill, it would be liable for up to $48 million in fines.

The rail industry continues to hold that it is the safest option for transporting hazardous materials, touting its self-reported 99.9 percent record of shipping hazardous materials without a release caused by a train accident.

Ian Jeffries, CEO of the Association of American Railroads trade group, said during the hearing that rail companies have voluntarily committed to beefing up safety training and infrastructure, including plans to install thousands of new “hot bearing detectors” along key routes so there are “no more than 15 miles on routes that do not have acoustic bearings or similar defect-detection technology.” A preliminary NTSB report detailed that an overheated wheel bearing in part caused the East Palestine derailment.

“Railroads know they have to restore confidence and demonstrate that nothing is more important to them than the safety of their employees, their customers, and the communities in which they operate,” Jeffries said. “Every rail accident is one too many, and railroads’ ultimate goal is to eliminate accidents altogether.”

But Vance and other lawmakers are not convinced that the rail industry’s voluntary safety measures will prevent future accidents. Brown accused Norfolk Southern and other companies of “compromising safety to cut costs” and continuing to “lobby to undermine safety rules” even after the accident in Ohio.

Vance added that the National Transportation Safety Board, which is overseeing the federal investigation of the accident, made a number of recommendations after a 2013 train derailment that spilled vinyl chloride, the same chemical that spilled in East Palestine. Those recommendations included training for emergency responders, which are also included in the Vance-Brown bill, but Vance said the industry has yet to implement those nearly 10-year-old suggestions.

Hesitations

Despite backing from Vance, it’s not clear if the bill has full support from other Republicans on the panel.

Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who typically opposes more stringent federal regulations, has voiced support for the East Palestine community but is critical of the action plan Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg released after the accident.

“It took Secretary Buttigieg 10 days to even acknowledge the derailment,” Cruz said. “After he was called out he did a 180 and tried to sell a slew of big government regulatory proposals, desperate to disguise the failure of the administration action.”

The bill includes some aspects of Buttigieg’s action plan, like two-person minimum crews and looking into the classification of “high hazard flammable trains.” It’s not clear if Cruz views those as “big government regulatory proposals.”

Cruz said that he is “optimistic” for ongoing negotiations on a bipartisan safety bill without “damaging our supply chain or imposing unreasonable costs that would ultimately harm American families.”

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the second-ranking Republican on the panel, has also shown hesitations for increased rail regulations. He previously told The Hill that he intends to consider the bill, but “an immediate quick response heavy on regulation needs to be thoughtful and targeted.”

Thune added during the hearing that the federal government has yet to implement hazardous materials and rail provisions from the 2015 surface transportation bill and criticized the Federal Railroad Administration, which he said “failed to prioritize” implementing various safety tools. 

Alan Shaw, CEO of Norfolk Southern, added that the industry also has reservations about some language in the bill. When asked if he supported the bill, he responded that he supports “a number of provisions.” Shaw did not expand on provisions he does not support.

Rep. Chris Deluzio, D-Pa., introduced a House companion to the Senate rail safety bill Tuesday. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has yet to announce next steps for the Senate bill.