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East Palestine, Ohio train derailment Senate hearing

An aerial photo shows workers and damaged tank cars in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 18, as cleanup continues in the aftermath of the Norfolk Southern freight train derailment.
An aerial photo shows workers and damaged tank cars in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 18, as cleanup continues in the aftermath of the Norfolk Southern freight train derailment. (Tannen Maury/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

In the lead-up to a Senate committee hearing on the toxic train derailment that spilled chemicals in the Ohio town of East Palestine last month, a bipartisan group of senators is introducing a new bill aimed at shoring up rail safety.

The Railway Safety Act of 2023 will be introduced by Republican Sens. J.D. Vance of Ohio, Marco Rubio of Florida and Josh Hawley of Missouri, and Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Bob Casey and John Fetterman of Pennsylvania.

The bill includes a number of provisions to boost safety procedures to prevent future incidents, including “new safety requirements and procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials like vinyl chloride,” a requirement for advance notice from railways to state emergency response officials about what their trains are carrying, requirements to prevent blocked railway crossings and new rules for train size and weight, according to a statement from the senators.

The bill also addresses the risk of wheel bearing failures by ramping up detection and inspection. It has a provision requiring “well-trained, two-person crews aboard every train.” And it boosts the maximum fines for rail carriers for wrongdoing.

The legislation also increases grants for HAZMAT training and Federal Railroad Administration research and development, as well as funding for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s development of tank car safety features.

Bipartisan challenges: This rare, general bipartisan agreement about taking action in the wake of the derailment follows years of Republicans generally supporting the deregulation of the rail industry, including the broad rollback of transportation rules during the Trump administration.

Experts point out several areas of opportunity to enhance rail safety and hold rail companies further accountable: updating trains’ braking systems, shortening the lengths of freight trains, further separating cars with hazardous material, requiring more crew members to be on board and increasing penalties.

Many of these proposals, experts say, have been around for decades, and have oftentimes been diminished or entirely eliminated after rail lobbying efforts. Data compiled by the nonprofit OpenSecrets show that Norfolk Southern, the company involved in the Ohio derailment, spent $1.8 million on federal lobbying last year.

CNN’s Maegan Vazquez, Pete Muntean and Aileen Graef contributed to this report.