RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A bill aimed at increasing railroad safety regulations was rejected in the Virginia General Assembly before a toxic train derailment in Ohio renewed calls for reform.
The window to revive the bill in the 2023 session has already passed because of a legislative deadline but Del. Shelly Simonds (D-Newport News) plans to try again next year.
In a speech on the House floor this week, Simonds said many of the rules that govern the industry are outdated and she called on lawmakers to do more to hold operators accountable. She said the train derailment and chemical spill that’s causing health concerns in East Palestine, Ohio showed what’s at stake.
“They are transporting dangerous and toxic chemicals on the rails, going through our towns and our cities every day. They must stop fighting us when it comes to safety,” Simonds said. “Major rail companies have not been taking safety and security seriously enough and, at the end of the day, it’s our job in this body to make sure they do.”
Norfolk Southern, the train company responsible for the incident in Ohio, was among the operators that spoke in opposition to Simond’s bill in a House Commerce and Energy subcommittee last month. The company was based in Virginia until recently and their infrastructure still run through the state.
“The railroad prides itself on its safe operations,” Norfolk Southern Lobbyist Tim Bentley told the GOP-led panel. “We have to oppose the bill on the grounds that we can’t have a hodgepodge of state laws dealing with interstate commerce issues.”
Bentley said the Federal Railroad Administration is in the process of rewriting regulations. Simonds said the process is moving slowly and other states have already acted to address “urgent safety concerns.”
The bill sought to limit the length of trains at roughly three miles and require crews of at least two people on board.
“We’re concerned that bills like this actually create a slippery slope whereby we actually dictate business operations, particularly how many staff,” said Keith Martin with the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
But SMART, a union representing roughly 1,600 railroad engineers and conductors in Virginia, said these guardrails are critical to stop companies from cutting corners on safety and prioritizing profit.
Ronnie Hobbs, SMART’s legislative director in Virginia, said the nation’s infrastructure wasn’t built to handle increasingly long trains and, while a two-men crew is currently the industry norm, he fears new technologies will threaten that standard.
“The last thing we want to do is end up like Palestine, Ohio. Here in Virginia, we can be better. It’s really that simple,” Hobbs said.
The bill died on a party-line 4-3 vote with one abstention from Del. Israel O’Quinn (R-Bristol), who raised concerns about long trains blocking rural roadways during the debate. A group representing firefighters noted it has caused delayed response times for first responders in emergencies.