Senate committee approves rail&safety bill after Ohio derailment

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A Senate committee approved a rail-safety bill Wednesday that was introduced following a toxic train derailment in Ohio. 

The legislation would increase inspections of trains carrying hazardous materials, require the use of tech to detect track defects and raise penalties on companies for crashes. 

Republican support for the bill is divided. Ohio’s J.D. Vance said the measure is necessary, and he and Missouri’s Eric Schmitt joined all the committee Democrats in voting for the bill.

“There will be another East Palestine in this country if we do not pass the Railway Safety Act. It’s that simple,” Vance said. “Yes, it may make rail transportation a little bit more expensive, but it’s going to make rail transportation a little bit more expensive in the service of safety.”

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However, Sen. Ted Cruz has said that the bill would hand over too much power to the Biden administration to restrict rail shipments of coal and other fossil fuels. 

“The many regulatory requirements of this bill would always carry some risk of harm to our supply chain and increased cost to American consumers. I think that was a trade many of us were willing to make for improved rail safety, but without sufficient guide rails in the hands of overzealous Biden bureaucrats, the new mandates in this bill would make it much easier for this administration to restrict the transportation of coal, of oil, of natural gas and of ethanol,” the Texan said in a statement.

Cruz added that – as it is written – it is unlikely the bill will get the 60 votes it would probably would need to pass on the Senate floor, unless alterations are made.

An original version introduced by Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown has already undergone changes. 

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Ian Jefferies, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, said bipartisan negotiations have improved the bill, but highlighted that “challenges remain with certain provisions,” including a requirement for at least two crew members on each train.

“In a piece of safety legislation, each provision should be clearly designed to rectify a current safety challenge. As reported out of the Committee, this bill falls short of that goal,” he wrote in a release. “That said, while railroads continue to advance industry-wide safety commitments, AAR and its members will continue to work with Congress to address the remaining obstacles and advance smart policies.”

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The federal government, the state of Ohio and residents near the Feb. 3 East Palestine crash have all filed lawsuits against rail operator Norfolk Southern. 

The Senate Commerce Committee advanced the bill one day after Norfolk Southern Corp. CEO Alan Shaw pledged to cover any decline in home values around the site of the derailment since that day. Shaw said Cruz had encouraged him to write the letter. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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