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After Ohio train derailment, 2023 was the year that put rail safety in the spotlight

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A fiery train crash sparked a push for rail safety this year. But as Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, the Railway Safety Act of 2023 may have run off the tracks.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Remember back in February when TV news was dominated by a huge flaming train wreck in a tiny town?

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Breaking news tonight - an emergency situation unfolding right now in East Palestine, Ohio, after a train derailed...

HILARY FLINT: It felt, like, post-apocalyptic. It felt like I was - the only way I could think about it is, like, running away from a tornado.

MORRIS: Hilary Flint, who lives four miles from the crash site, was driving away from the towering cloud of boiling black smoke.

FLINT: It reminded me of the photos I've seen of the atomic bomb.

MORRIS: An overheated wheel bearing failed, tipping 38 rail cars off the tracks, including 11 carrying toxic chemicals. Nobody was hurt at first, but the chemical fallout from the fire lingered, and people like Flint say they suffered sore throats, rashes and headaches for months.

FLINT: I think it - what happened here really woke people up.

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MORRIS: And it drew lots of attention, including a visit from former President Donald Trump.

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DONALD TRUMP: To the people of East Palestine and to the nearby communities in Ohio and Pennsylvania, we have told you loud and clear, you are not forgotten.

MORRIS: The wreck sparked bipartisan legislation. The Railway Safety Act of 2023 would force railroads to deploy more sensors to detect failing wheel bearings, to alert local officials to hazardous trains, and set the size of train crews. It was co-sponsored by conservative Republicans and Democrats like Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown.

SHERROD BROWN: This is an attempt - this railroad bill - railway safety bill - is an attempt to blunt some of that overreach and some of that greed that corporate executives at the railroads have foisted upon the American public.

MORRIS: In recent years, railroads have cut about a third of their employees, stretched the length of trains and banked record profits. Brown says staffing is thin, safety has suffered and that the Railway Safety Act aims to turn that around.

BROWN: The railroads want only one engineer. Our law says there have to be at least two people working on these trains at all times.

MORRIS: That mandatory two-person crew size is a major sticking point. Ian Jefferies, president of the Association of American Railroads, says that train crews have already dropped from five down to two as technology keeps advancing.

IAN JEFFERIES: At the same time, we've seen dramatic safety improvements across every aspect of the industry.

MORRIS: Jefferies says derailments are down about 30% in the last two decades. Hazardous chemical spills are off more than 70%, he says.

JEFFERIES: Last year was one of the best years in the entire history of this industry, if not the best.

MORRIS: Railroads hate wrecks. After all, accidents kill valuable employees. They destroy gear, scramble schedules and spark lawsuits. They cost lots of money. And since East Palestine, Jefferies says, railroads have reached out to millions of local first responders, letting them know when trains are toting hazardous stuff, what it is and what to do if it leaks out. So one major goal of the Railway Safety Act is already taking hold, but the act itself has been stuck in the Senate for months.

BILL VANTUONO: For all intents and purposes, it's dead.

MORRIS: Bill Vantuono, editor-in-chief at Railway Age, says the Railway Safety Act would lock in outdated safety technology. He says it's good politics but bad legislation coming before the government's East Palestine crash investigation is even completed.

VANTUONO: It wasn't needed in the first place. It was a huge waste of time, nothing but a political stunt. And if it is in fact dead, which I think it is, you know, good riddance.

MORRIS: Well, not so fast. Senator Brown admits the legislation faces a Republican filibuster and that Congress faces lots of other problems right now. But Brown says he still hopes to get a full Senate vote on the Railway Safety Act of 2023 by the end of the year.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.