Lawmakers Propose Legislation to Tighten Rail Safety Regulations

Because it did not contain enough hazardous material to be considered high-hazard, the train that was stranded in Ohio was exempted from federal safety regulations. The threshold could be reduced by lawmakers.

WASHINGTON -- Tuesday's bill by two House Democrats will tighten federal regulations of trains carrying hazardous material. This is the first legislative proposal that Congress has seen since the Ohio train accident, which resulted in the death of a freight train carrying toxic chemicals.

Representatives Chris Deluzio from Pennsylvania, whose congressional district is near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, and Ro Khanna, of California, are the sponsors of the legislation. This legislation would expand the definition of what is a "high-hazard, flammable train" and subject to tighter federal safety regulations. Because it carried less hazardous material than the Transportation Department threshold, the train that was derailled this month was exempted from these requirements.

In a divided Congress, the prospects of the measure are uncertain. The derailment has sparked a heated debate about rail safety and federal regulation. It also raised questions about who in Washington is concerned about rural communities such as East Palestine, Ohio. There was a massive firestorm when 38 Norfolk Southern rail cars, 11 carrying hazardous materials, rolled off the tracks at East Palestine, Ohio, this month.

Officials decided to burn the toxic materials in the train a few days later and send a huge plume of toxic smoke into space. The ecological damage continues to affect residents in East Palestine's farm town.

In an interview, Mr. Deluzio stated that he has people he represents worried about their safety and their health. "So it is important that me and my constituents do everything we can to make the industry safer and that we address the problem of dangerous chemicals and materials entering our communities.

As lawmakers from both parties rush to react to the derailment, the bill's introduction is timely. Senator Chuck Schumer (Democrat of New York) was the majority leader and called for the chief executive at Norfolk Southern to testify before Congress about what went wrong.

The Republican-led House has launched an investigation into how the Biden administration handled the incident. Two other panels, Transportation and Infrastructure, Energy and Commerce, have also requested information.

Six members of Congress representing the region wrote to Norfolk Southern, requesting details about railroad operations and their plans to clean up contaminated materials.

The legislation introduced by Mr. Deluzio, Mr. Khanna and others is the first to address the issue in Congress. This would lower the threshold that a train can be considered "high-hazard, flammable" to transport hazardous materials. Such trains must travel no more than 50 mph and use special braking equipment and cars to transport them.

These rules are currently applied by the Transportation Department to trains transporting flammable liquids in at most 20 cars consecutively, or 35 cars. These substances were found in three of the train's cars on the Ohio derailment, which is well below the safety threshold.

The legislation would allow for one rail car to contain any of the expanded list of hazardous substances.

Ohio Republican Mike DeWine said this month that it was absurd that the train that was derailed was not considered high-hazard flammable. He called on Congress to act.

The National Transportation Safety Board released a report last week stating that the crew of the train were alerted to an overheating bearing just moments before the train's cars began to leave the tracks.

In an interview, the chairwoman of the safety board stated that any recommendation by the board would most likely need to be approved by Congress or railroad companies.

In an interview Mr. Khanna stated that East Palestine was a representation of people who were cheated by globalization and are now suffering again because of greed over railroads. This is something we can do to hold them responsible and to correct the wrongs that have occurred.

This measure would also require rail carriers to report to the federal National Response Center, state and local officials within 24 hour of a train carrying toxic chemical derailments.

This bill is similar to some recommendations made by the National Transportation Safety Board in 2014. After officials from the Transportation Department reported that the mandate was too costly, the Obama administration passed a rule requiring high-hazard flammable trains that had to have their brake systems upgraded by 2023.

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.