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Railway transport safety is failing. These lawmakers have a plan to help

A view of the scene in East Palestine, Ohio, in late February as the cleanup continues at the site of a Norfolk Southern freight train derailment.
Matt Freed
A view of the scene in East Palestine, Ohio, in late February as the cleanup continues at the site of a Norfolk Southern freight train derailment.

With two headline-grabbing train derailments in the span of about a month, two legislators are taking action to address concerns railway workers have been voicing for years.

Who are they? Elected officials Michele Grim of Ohio (D) and Mike Jacobson of Nebraska (R) are working on passing legislation surrounding rail safety in their respective states, with the hopes it will become federal law as well.

  • Late last year, workers were mounting up for a historic railway strike to demand better working conditions; in this case, that included adding paid sick days for workers. That fight is still on.
  • And as railway companies slashed labor in order to optimize costs, workers said that they were the ones forced to pay, by not taking time off when ill and working longer hours.
  • What's the big deal?

  • On Saturday night, another train derailed in Ohio, though this one was not carrying hazardous materials, and nobody was injured.
  • That derailment was a month after the more notable disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, where toxic chemicals were spilled, and residents of the surrounding area were left vulnerable to the possible effects.
  • Transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg spoke with NPR about the issue last month, reiterating a need for stronger railroad safety rules and enforcement power.
  • In 2021 alone, there were 293 train derailments on "main lines" — meaning not in work areas or in rail yards.

  • For more on this story, listen to the lawmakers discuss their plans by tapping the play button on the audio at the top of this page.

    Smoke rises from the derailed cargo train in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 4.
    DUSTIN FRANZ / AFP via Getty Images
    AFP via Getty Images
    Smoke rises from the derailed cargo train in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 4.

    What are people saying?

    Senator Jacobson on regulation:

    This is not a partisan issue. This is an issue of doing the right thing. I've been a banker for 43 years. I can tell you as a banker, I don't like regulation.  

    I don't know what the industry would look like without regulation. So a lot of people say, 'Mike, you're a Republican. Why are you wanting to impose a mandate on private business?' And my answer to that is that I think many of these businesses — in this case, the railroads — would probably welcome universal rules that everyone would have to abide by, that would allow them to be on a level playing field and provide public safety. All we've heard about from all the railroad companies after this is safety is their top priority. My response to that is, then prove it to me.

    Representative Grim on what changes she's seeking to mandate:

    We've been hearing from rail workers for decades that we need a two-person crew minimum because they're afraid that the rail industry is going to try and roll back some of the safety measures there.  

    The other one is making sure that railways have wayside defect detectors so that they can be alerted right away when there is an issue. This is the first legislation in the country that would require these wayside defect detectors.

    So, what now?

  • In Ohio, two pieces of legislation - for the two-person crew requirement and around wayside defect detectors - were in the transportation budget that was passed on the House floor last week.  
  • In Nebraska, Jacobson has introduced a bill to require a minimum crew size for freight trains: "We're just going to put in statute that you're required to maintain those crew members. And then later, if the Federal Railroad Administration meets later this summer and/or if Congress will pass legislation to require it, which is what's preferable, then that would be the law of the land." 
  • Both officials say that it is time for the federal government to act, and that they hope their respective legislation will push the needle in that direction. 
  • Read more:

  • How the EPA assesses health risks after the Ohio train derailment
  • Here's the most thorough explanation yet for the train derailment in East Palestine
  • After the East Palestine disaster, Buttigieg calls for stronger railroad safety rules
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Manuela López Restrepo
    Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.

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