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Ohio Senate committee on rail safety releases recommendations

Railroad Contract Talks
Posted at 8:00 AM, Sep 16, 2023

The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.

The Ohio Senate’s Select Committee on Rail Safety unveiled its final report Wednesday morning. The Senate set up the panel in the wake of the East Palestine derailment in February of this year.

The report offers a limited a set of recommendations — in no small part because federal authorities take precedence on regulating rail lines. It’s a point the chair, Sen. Bill Reineke, R-Tiffin, brought up before the vote to accept the report.

“I specifically would like to say that we need to move forward on the federal legislation,” Reineke said, “because there’s many things that affect us in the state that we cannot operate on because they’re interstate or intrastate.”

That federal legislation is the Railway Safety Act of 2023, co-sponsored by Ohio’s U.S. Senate delegation. Recommending its passage is the committee’s first recommendation.

Still, while the recommendations lean toward “encourage” or “consider,” Reineke stressed, where possible, they wanted to offer an “actionable” report.

Last minute changes

A significant share of the state’s action on rail safety has already happened, through provisions in the transportation budget passed earlier this year. Those measures include requiring two person crews, installing wayside detectors and regular intervals and a report on the detectors’ effectiveness.

Similarly, Sen. Kristina Roegner, R-Hudson, highlighted an appropriation in the operating budget for rail crossings.

“We added, it was, $100 million for the rail crossing safety program,” she said, “and my understanding is that we can get matches perhaps up to $400 million from the federal government for that. So maybe up to $500 million to improve rail safety crossings. That’s huge, because it’s often times at these crossings that accidents occur.”

The committee agreed to add a recommendation on seeking out those matching funds.

Democrats on the panel, however, expressed concerns about a lack of concrete action.

“When I see something like ‘encourage’ I don’t know what that means,” Sen. Catherine Ingram, D-Cincinnati, said. “And when I see ‘continued long term testing of soil,’ I want to know how long and what that really looks like.”

“I’m concerned that this is just a piece of paper,” she added, “and it doesn’t really get us to where we need to be.”

Sen. Paula Hicks-Hudson, D-Toledo, chimed in to call for “clear parameters” on testing as well as funding for report in the next operation budget.

A brief pause

Hicks-Hudson’s motion to add a specific timeframe and a report sent the committee into a brief recess. Lawmakers and staffers huddled to discuss how exactly to frame Hicks-Hudson’s suggestion. The Senate set up the committee with a specific charge, Reineke explained, so they wanted to be sure about the language before voting.

After deliberating for a few minutes, the committee gaveled back in, and Hicks-Hudson thanked her colleagues for helping “put a little bit more oomph” in the report. She proposed two changes — adding “for at least 20 years” to recommendation on soil testing and changing consider to “request” funding for an agricultural impact study in the next budget.

The committee quickly agreed to the changes.

The final recommendations

The committee’s draft of the final report offered eight recommendations as well as taking credit for the transportation budget changes. After proposals from Roegner and Hicks Hudson those recommendations likely grows to nine.

The report proposes:

  • Passage of the Railway Safety Act of 2023.
  • Establishing “clear and concise chain of command” ahead of future emergencies.
  • Providing resources for training volunteer fire and EMS crews.
  • Considering “emerging technologies” for identifying materials in railcars and how best to manage them in case of a derailment.
  • Continuing soil testing in East Palestine for at least 20 years.
  • Encouraging improved communication between rail operators and local emergency authorities including the contents of railcars and emergency contacts with the rail operator.
  • Requesting funding for agricultural report on East Palestine in the next budget
  • Encouraging research on “alternative resources” for putting out hazardous materials fires.
  • Pursuing federal matching funds for the rail crossing safety program.