© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute
Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio.
Congress has delayed action on bills to address incidents like this one in East Palestine, Ohio, in Feb. 2023. Gene J. Puskar/AP

Why the Rail Safety Push Stalled Out in Congress

One year after the East Palestine train derailment, there’s little hope for congressional action, despite bipartisan agreement.

Rail safety is a rare issue where President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump fall on the same side. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has spent months urging Congress to act, arguing that only through congressional action can the federal government have the control to hold rail operators accountable for unsafe practices.

Yet a year after the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, there’s little enthusiasm from Congress to pass safety regulations to prevent similar incidents from happening again.

Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance have spearheaded efforts in the Senate through the Railway Safety Act of 2023, introduced last March. Both are confident that enough senators will back the bill to get it through the 60-vote threshold for cloture. The only thing left is to put the bill on the floor, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer hasn’t committed to doing so.

“I’m not going to defend him, he should bring it to the floor,” Brown said. “But I understand why he hasn’t because he wasn’t sure he had the Republican votes, and he’s had to do so many other things.” Vance similarly said Schumer has been “extremely cautious.”

Senior administration officials said that without congressional action, the Department of Transportation is left to “relying on the goodwill” of Norfolk Southern to keep its own commitments.

“It should not be the case that one year after that derailment that we are still waiting for Congress to act,” Buttigieg said on a recent press call. “And yet we’ve seen many who had a lot to say about this in Congress a year ago who have still not made clear on record whether they’re for or against this bill.”

Rep. Chris Deluzio, a Democrat who represents the Pennsylvania border area of Darlington Township just minutes from East Palestine, sponsored the House version of the bill. He told NOTUS that Buttigieg is right to push Congress to give the DOT more authority to issue rules and stricter fines on Northfolk Southern and other companies that break safety requirements. The Railway Safety Act would increase the maximum statutory civil penalty for violating rail safety laws from $100,000 to $10 million.

But one county over in Western Pennsylvania, Republican Rep. Mike Kelly has the opposite message. He believes that “Norfolk Southern will do everything they can” to ensure rail safety, and there’s no space left for Congress.

“What would we even do, guarantee that trains never wreck? I mean, I don’t know. It’s always like, ‘Congress needs to do more.’ But what are they going to do,” he said. “There’s always going to be a hangover, where people feel like there’s damage left over. It will age out generationally, and maybe they’ll forget about it.”

Many House Republicans share Kelly’s view. In a fact sheet shared Thursday, the DOT pointed to two House votes last year, one in April that would have cut discretionary spending for the department by 22%, and a September continuing resolution that they said would have led to nearly 44,000 fewer miles of track inspected annually.

Others, including Republican Ohio Rep. Mike Carey, would rather wait on a National Transportation Safety Board report on the incident before acting on rail safety. “I feel confident that the Congress will be acting, but there is just a strong concern that it would be premature to act without understanding what the problems are,” he said.

Despite disagreement about the level of congressional action, rail safety remains a bipartisan issue. Sen. Josh Hawley, a cosponsor of the bill, said it’s “ridiculous” that neither chamber has made time for a floor vote, despite the bills sailing through committee. In his view, senators shouldn’t wait on Schumer to schedule a floor time, but instead ask for unanimous consent to get it done. Some of his colleagues “don’t think this is a serious enough issue and that it’s blown out of proportion, I mean, I hear my colleagues say that kind of stuff,” Hawley said. “I respectfully disagree, and the bill is quite modest, it’s targeted at the problem, and frankly, it’s the least we can do.”

Several of the bill’s backers brought up another reason rail safety hasn’t gotten done: decades-long influence of lobbyists.

“These big rail companies for years have been rigging the system, hiring lobbyists to prevent any kind of reform,” Sen. Bob Casey said. “And if Norfolk Southern or any rail company wants to do what’s in the best interest of the people, they should support the damn bill.”

Katherine Swartz is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.