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Reps. Bill Johnson and Emilia Strong Sykes introduce RAIL Act in the House

Aerial view of derailed trains lying in dirt beside railroad tracks in East Palestine, Ohio. An excavator and other trucks are parked nearby.
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Derailed Norfolk Southern train cars lie in the dirt beside the railroad tracks in East Palestine on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. The Feb. 3, 2023, derailment has brought calls for increased regulation of the rail industry.

A bipartisan bill designed to increase rail safety in response to the train derailment in East Palestine last month was introduced in the U.S House by Republican Bill Johnson and Democrat Emilia Strong Sykes on Friday.

The Reducing Accidents In Locomotives, or RAIL, Act is similar to the Senate version introduced earlier this month by Ohio Senators Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance. The biggest difference is the House bill does not require a well-trained two-person crew aboard every train, but Strong Sykes said this is something she won't give up on.

"That was removed so that we could start the conversation," Strong Sykes said, "but that by no means means that I'm backing off on that."

Congresswoman Emilia Sykes addresses her crowd of supporters after winning the democratic vote on November 8th 2022.
Eman Abu-Khaled
Ideastream Public Media
Congresswoman Emilia Sykes addresses her crowd of supporters after winning the democratic vote on November 8th 2022. Her first piece of legislation was introduced on March 17, 2023, to address rail safety.

The bill is still getting pushback from rail companies even without the staffing minimum.

"We did hear some criticism from the railroad industry," Strong Sykes said. "That is not shocking, because most people don't want to have more fines and penalties or not even just recommendations but requirements laid upon them."

This likely won't be the final version of the legislation, Strong Sykes said.

"If this version passes in the House and the Senate version passes, there will be some reconciliation between the two," Strong Sykes said, "and we will battle out these issues again."

Both bills increase inspections on trains, including those carrying hazardous materials, require rail carriers to give advance notice of what trains are carrying and strengthen regulation to prevent wheel bearing failure.

Fast action on this legislation is crucial, Strong Sykes said.

"The benefit of the RAIL Act and passing meaningful legislation and wrapping your arms around it fast is we can speed up and expedite the process of people having more peace of mind around the safety here," Strong Sykes said.

In a statement, Johnson agreed, saying, "Since the East Palestine train derailment, two additional trains have derailed in Ohio. It is imperative that Congress swiftly works to make much-needed changes to our nation’s railway safety standards."

Strong Sykes is cautiously optimistic the bill will pass the House.

"At this point we are hopeful that we will see movement on this bill as was indicated and signaled by the Republican leadership," Strong Sykes said, "and we will have some thoughtful conversations hopefully in Transportation and Infrastructure Committee where we can come up with the best results for the people of East Palestine and the people across this nation."

The derailment in East Palestine is the beginning of substantial change to rail safety, Strong Sykes said.

"This is certainly a time of heightened sensitivity to the issue," Strong Sykes said, "but knowing that the rail infrastructure is so permanent in so many places, I don't believe it's [concern about rail safety] going to go away so quickly."

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.