WASHINGTON, D.C. — A bipartisan group of senators have teamed up on legislation to make sweeping changes in railroad safety rules following the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, but whether it can get through both chambers of Congress remains uncertain.

What You Need To Know

  • Ohio U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown (D) and JD Vance (R) have teamed up to introduce a sweeping rail safety bill in the wake of the East Palestine train derailment

  • While the bill has early bipartisan support in the Senate, it’s unclear if Republicans who control the U.S. House will embrace it

  • Spectrum News spoke with Brown and Vance about why they feel the legislation will help prevent future derailments

  • On the House side, Ohio Representatives Bill Johnson (R) and Max Miller (R) also weighed in

Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and JD Vance, R-Ohio, have only been colleagues since January, but the recent derailment in East Palestine, and toxic chemical release that followed, has prompted Brown, a three-term Democrat, and Vance, a freshman Republican, to work together fast.

On Wednesday, with the support of four other senators (two Republican, two Democrat), the two introduced the Railway Safety Act of 2023

The bill would establish new safety standards for trains carrying hazardous materials, including notifying state officials ahead of time that a train is coming; strengthen inspections and scans of trains; require two-person crews on each train; increase the fines imposed on rail companies that do wrong; and expand federal funding for rail infrastructure and grants to train first responders.

“My pitch is, basically, that it’s a very commonsense piece of legislation,” Vance told Spectrum News on Thursday. “It doesn’t impose extraordinary costs on the railroads. And in fact, the worst thing it does to the railroads is force them to pay up after an accident has happened, which I think is just basic fairness.”

Vance said he views the bill as a way to protect first responders like those in East Palestine, who didn’t know what toxins were on fire when the Norfolk Southern train derailed.

Brown said the legislation mirrors what U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called for last week.

On Wednesday, the White House and Senate majority leader offered early support for the bill.

“This is a good first step and we welcome it,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

During a floor speech, Sen. Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, said, “I am going to work with the sponsors of the bill to move this bill forward.”

On Thursday evening, President Joe Biden released a statement in support of the bill.

“I encourage Republicans and Democrats alike to move quickly to advance these commonsense rail safety measures and send me a bill to sign into law,” he said.

But the toughest challenge ahead seems to be the Republicans who now control the U.S. House.

“I feel good about passing this in the Senate,” Sen. Brown told Spectrum News on Wednesday. “I hope the pressure builds on House members, that even House members that take a lot of campaign money from the railroads and the chemical industry will decide that they want to side with the public interest.”

Ohio Rep. Bill Johnson represents East Palestine and has spent days on the ground there. Spectrum News reached out to his office to get his initial thoughts on the legislation introduced by Brown and Vance.

“Congressman Johnson looks forward to reviewing legislation that would address rail safety after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has completed its investigation and released its findings regarding the East Palestine train derailment,” Alyssa Gulick, a spokeswoman for Johnson, said in a statement. “It’s critically important that Congress and the administration work together to adopt effective, responsible policies to better prevent anything like this from happening again.”

In an interview with Spectrum News on Thursday, fellow Ohio GOP Rep. Max Miller said he felt similarly.

“I would love action to be taken as soon as we possibly can, but I do agree with Congressman Johnson,” Miller said. “Is it responsible for Congress to appropriate money without a complete study done of how we can use that money best to serve the Ohio people?”

Vance argues the bill is fiscally responsible and should be passed soon, especially since the NTSB already released a preliminary report on the East Palestine crash.

“You don’t have to wait on NTSB to know that our first responders deserve to know what’s on these trains in the first place,” Vance said Thursday.

Vance and Brown told Spectrum News they have not yet discussed the bill with Norfolk Southern executives, but they will take part in a Senate hearing next week where CEO Alan Shaw is expected to testify.