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Sen. Joe Manchin says he will support proposed bipartisan rail safety legislation

Manchin says he supports rail safety legislation
Sen. Joe Manchin says he will support proposed bipartisan rail safety legislation 08:50

Washington — Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, said Sunday that he supports bipartisan rail safety legislation introduced in the wake of the toxic train disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, that led to serious health and environmental concerns for the community's residents.

"I'm going to be supporting that," Manchin said in an interview with "Face the Nation." "We need to do it."

The measure, called the Railway Safety Act, was unveiled last week by a bipartisan group of six senators — including the two from Ohio — and aims to implement reforms to prevent future derailments. The plan requires rail carriers to give advance notice to state emergency response officials about what they're transporting, increases rail car inspections to ensure those carrying hazardous materials are inspected at regular intervals and requires crews of at least two people for every train.

It also bolsters the monitoring of wheel bearings, which the National Transportation Safety Board found overheated in the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, imposes new safety requirements and procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials like vinyl chloride, which was in five of the tank cars that derailed, and heightens fines for rail carriers for wrongdoing.

President Joe Biden has endorsed the bill and called on Congress to swiftly advance the rail safety measures.

"This bill will make important progress – and we need to do even more, like require state of the art braking systems, provide more funding for federal safety inspections, invest in worker safety, fortify state emergency management and response, and hold companies like Norfolk Southern accountable not just for the immediate damage, but also the long-term health and economic damage to communities like East Palestine," Mr. Biden said in a statement. 

Manchin, too, said there should be more action at the federal level to prevent future derailments, including requiring certain trains to be outfitted with electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, as well as ordering routine maintenance checks and auditing.

"I don't think any of that has been done," he said. "And it's time for us to get serious about this. We're moving many, many products, many more products on the rails and on our roads than we ever did before."

The bipartisan nature of the rail safety bill stands in contrast to the response to the East Palestine train derailment, which has been divided along partisan lines. Republicans have accused the Biden administration, and specifically Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, of waiting too long to respond to the disaster, while Democrats have blamed former President Donald Trump for unwinding rail safety measures that were put in place during the Obama administration.

Democrats have specifically pointed to the Trump administration's decision to rescind a 2015 rule requiring trains carrying highly flammable materials to have advanced braking systems, withdraw a plan to require two-member crews on freight trains and stop regular safety audits of railroads.

Still, the bipartisan support for the legislation is a positive sign for advancement in the Senate. Whether the proposal can pass the GOP-led House, though, is less clear. 

Rep. Brad Wenstrup, a Republican from Ohio, told "Face the Nation" that Congress "should take a look" if a review of rail incidents shows there were safety gaps, but stressed that issues should be addressed. 

"We're always trying to do better, I hope that we can," he said.

Wenstrup also said that in incidents where there may be toxic chemical reactions and fires started as a result of a derailment, it's critical that standard operating procedures are in place and followed to protect the surrounding communities.

"Do we have a standard operating procedure of how we manage a community? What our reaction is from the government? What are we looking for? How do we protect our people?" he said. "Let's make sure that we have a good standard operating procedure, so although these instances are rare, according to the numbers, we have to be prepared for that 0.1% or whatever the case may be."

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