When Will Congress Pass Rail Safety Legislation?

This Saturday will mark the one-year anniversary of the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. The accident involved some 20 hazmat railcars. Emergency crews responding to the derailment had to conduct controlled burns of toxic material, releasing harmful fumes into the air impacting residents around the area. The air quality, drinking water, and general health of these affected communities were compromised. Government officials and the American public were incensed.

The accident prompted lawmakers in the Senate to draft new legislation—the Railway Safety Act—in bid to prevent future disasters like this, while also enforcing tighter standards on railroad safety. This includes requiring railroads to enlist two-person crews, absorb increased fines on violations, and provide advanced notice to emergency response teams when hauling hazmat cargoes.

The legislation was introduced in March, just a month after the derailment, but, nearly a year later, the bill has yet to pass the Senate.

So, when will Congress pass rail safety legislation?

Lawmakers await NTSB’s investigative findings

For the Rail Safety Act, or any rail safety bill for that matter, to be passed, the National Transportation Safety Board will likely have had to release its final investigative report on the East Palestine derailment. The report, which is anticipated to come out midyear, will include recommendations for rail safety and the best course of action for stakeholders going forward.

That said, the report’s conclusions will likely shape congressional rail safety legislation. Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives have stated that they would not proceed on legislation until the NTSB’s report on the February 2023 derailment came out.

As for the Senate, where the Railway Safety Act currently sits, Ohio senators Sherrod Brown (D) and J.D. Vance (R) are reportedly motivated to move last year’s introduced bill through the Senate, however they remain unsuccessful.

Once the NTSB report becomes available, Capitol Hill lawmakers may feel more assured with the direction taken with any safety legislation. Or they could be using the report as a stall for railroad lobbyists. Either way, stakeholders should keep an eye out once the report is released and see what sort of action follows in Congress.

Final Thoughts

While the NTSB’s report appears to be the main hurdle between existing rail safety bills becoming rail safety laws, another variable comes into play in 2024—the U.S. election cycle.

In an election year, the number of bills introduced and passed are relatively tamer compared to non-election years. Legislative priorities are also subject to change within election years. In what’s shaping up to be a heated and partisan 2024 cycle, matters of railroad safety will be far from center stage. The passage of legislation could be a challenging feat this year.

 Contact one of our team members if you have any questions regarding this topic or any others in domestic logistics.

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