On Feb. 3, the only sound echoing farther than the thundering crash of the derailment of a 1.7-mile-long Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous materials in East Palestine, Ohio, was the subsequent outcry from politicians. Make no mistake, this was a disaster with explosions and fire (some of it deliberately set as a controlled burn to reduce the scale of the toxic spill).

Despite the enormous turnout of emergency personnel and first responders, elected officials from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on down questioned whether federal regulators have been asleep at the switch, whether it would ever be safe again to live within 30 miles of the site, and even complained about which government officials were willing to visit East Palestine and when (President Biden’s non-appearance proving most auspicious). And as some politicians were quickly bemoaning the environmental and public health harm done to residents of two potential swing states in the 2024 presidential election (Ohio and Pennsylvania), others were fiercely guarding against the possibility that toxic waste from the site might be headed to their state for treatment or disposal.

Far more quiet, however, has been the effort within Congress to do something more meaningful about freight rail safety than loud oratory. On May 10, the Senate Commerce Committee voted to approve the Railway Safety Act on a bipartisan basis. The legislation would authorize a number of important safety steps, including the use of trackside “defect detectors” set every 15 miles that would observe axle and signal problems in passing trains (railroads voluntarily use them today every 25 miles), require trains carrying flammable liquids to slow down in urban areas, upgrade braking, and notify states of the kinds of materials trains will be transporting. It would also mandate two-person crews and require the Federal Railroad Administration to study the safety impact of longer and heavier trains, both of which may well have been factors in the Ohio derailment. The measure is likely to be approved by the full Senate as it has the support of leadership, but the U.S. House of Representatives and its leadership have been quite a different story.

So far, there’s been a deafening silence coming out of the House where legislation to the Senate bill has been introduced. More than three months after the disaster, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure has not even scheduled a hearing. It’s not difficult to speculate why. House Republicans are working hard to portray the Biden administration as anti-business and a disaster for the economy. It obviously doesn’t help that narrative if they’ve signed on to legislation that, while much-needed to protect the health and safety of all Americans (and especially those living near tracks), is opposed by the freight operators as too costly and expands the federal government’s regulatory reach. In short, it’s all very well to complain when regulators haven’t prevented a major toxic spill; it’s quite another to give those regulators that money and authority to do their job effectively.

The truth is that train derailments happen frequently – on average, about three per day, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. They just aren’t usually so catastrophic, and that argues for a strong regulatory response. Yet the one area where elected officials seem willing to crack down is the wrong one. So far, a number of states have drawn the line on accepting any contaminated water or soil from the East Palestine cleanup efforts, among them Oklahoma, Texas, Michigan and Maryland.

None of this should be a surprise, of course. Politicians are often cheered for seeming to stand up against polluters, but rarely, if ever, do they excite voters or campaign contributors by actually doing something meaningful about them. Why would anyone welcome toxins, including vinyl chloride and benzene – already proven capable of killing thousands of fish, crustaceans, amphibians and other marine animals anywhere near them? And yet we blithely accept that these trains (and trucks, of course) carrying these chemicals and worse will motor on while meaningful protections against potential future disasters quietly stall on Capitol Hill.

Is this any way to run a railroad? Or supervise one?

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