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Sen. Cantwell votes to advance railway safety bill

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, voted to advance bipartisan railway safety legislation out of committee and was joined by a majority of the committee members who wanted to advance the bill.

A day after a potentially dangerous train derailment in Tacoma, the issue of safety on the country’s railways took center stage in Washington, D.C.

Cantwell has called for new rules for the railroad companies. The railway safety bill that was considered by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Wednesday morning does actually have some level of bipartisan support and some experts say it could improve safety, after a series of highly publicized incidents.

One of the main reasons for this proposal was the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, which spewed toxic chemicals into the air. That happened in February, and it has spurred at least one key rule change; a ban on rail companies setting time limits on rail inspections.

Washington state has had its share of dangerous train derailments. On Tuesday, May 9 a train derailed near the Port of Tacoma and a man is accused of tampering with railroad equipment.

There were no spills from that derailment, but at least one person who spoke to KIRO 7 told us there could have been, and also said incidents like the one in Tacoma are fairly common.

In December 2020, seven cars carrying crude oil derailed near Custer, Wash., and two of the cars caught fire. Near Anacortes in March of this year, a train derailed on the Swinomish Reservation and it was estimated that 2,500 gallons of diesel leaked into the soil.

Cantwell made it clear that people should know what a train is carrying if it rolls through a community.

“A state like the state of Ohio deserves to know, they deserve to know and they deserve to have firefighters and responders know how to respond to that -- so we are giving (Ohio) Governor (Mike) Dewine what he asked for,” said Cantwell.

Among the proposals to make things safer would be to mandate use technology to detect defects. That rule is related to the East Palestine, Ohio derailment since lawmakers say using that tech could have prevented it. There would also be an expansion of what constitutes hazardous materials that would also allow for things like speed, restrictions, better braking, and taking a closer look at the routes trains take and assessing risk.

The legislation would also create stronger emergency response plans to prepare for railroad disasters. It was approved by the Senate committee.

The Railway Safety Act builds upon legislation introduced by Ohio and Pennsylvania Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH), J.D. Vance (R-OH), Bob Casey (D-PA), and John Fetterman (D-PA), along with Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) following the devastating train derailment in East Palestine.

“In the past decade, derailments in the State of Washington nearly doubled, causing trains to catch fire, spill diesel fuel on sensitive ecological areas, and evacuating people from their homes,” Cantwell said. “No one should lose sleep at night worrying that the railroads are cutting corners on safety. This week, the Commerce Committee will vote on bipartisan legislation that mandates the use of technology that can identify equipment failures, prevents 30-second railcar inspections, and ensures trains carrying explosive material like the East Palestine train comply with stronger safety regulations. The bill also supports emergency preparedness by providing funding to local first responders to purchase equipment and requires railroads to tell states what materials trains are carrying through their communities. I hope my colleagues join me in passing this legislation to hold the railroads to account and raise the bar on safety.”

Cantwell’s office sent out information that says in the state of Washington, 44 million tons of hazardous materials move to destinations in the state each year by rail. This includes 4 million gallons of crude oil, which are transported by train through the state each day. Many oil trains travel through cities, including Seattle, Pasco and Bellingham. Over 75% of fire departments in Washington are volunteer or mostly volunteer-run. Only 14% of fire departments in the state have a specialized hazardous materials team that could best respond to hazmat spills.

In February, Cantwell called for an investigation into railroads’ handling of hazardous materials, sending letters to seven top railroad CEOs seeking information about their safety practices. In March, the senator also questioned Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw about the rail industry’s commitment to safety.

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