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Ohio state lawmakers pushing for more railroad safety regulations

Changes to House Bill 23 were proposed earlier this week, and State Senate Majority Leader Nickie J. Antonio expects support from Gov. Mike DeWine.

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Friday marks six weeks since the toxic train derailment in East Palestine. Earlier this week, Ohio lawmakers pushed for more railroad safety across the state.

Changes made to House Bill 23, the state's transportation budget for the 2024-25 fiscal year, include adding more wayside detectors on railroad tracks. These devices use cameras and sensors to catch faulty equipment or excessive heat, and one of them showed an axle on the infamous Norfolk Southern freight train was well above acceptable temperatures just before the wreck.

"What it means is just earlier notice, if there's a problem," Ohio Senate Majority Leader Nickie J. Antonio (D-Lakewood) told 3News. "These wayside detectors are heat detectors, and so they let engineers and the folks who are watching the control center know if there's a problem with the heat on the train as it passes through those detectors."

Under the new bill, the detectors would be installed every 10 to 15 miles of track in Ohio. With the Columbiana County derailment, there was a gap of about 20 miles between detectors, at one point.

"At East Palestine, what happened was there were wayside detectors that did note that there was an increase in heat," Antonio explained. "But the order to stop the train, it's still under discussion whether or not that should have happened sooner. What are the protocols? I mean, I believe they followed their protocols, so perhaps ... more detectors need to be on there so that maybe there's an earlier warning."

Also added by state senators in HB 23 is a requirement for a train or light engine to use at least a two-person crew.

"We've been talking about these issues," Antonio said. "We've been hearing from the folks in the train industry who are the conductors and the crews who have said these things would make rails safer."

However, others say these budget amendments aren't enough. Fred Millar, an independent consultant for hazardous materials on trains, believes state lawmakers need to start talking about urban rerouting.

"In other words — not allowing the trains to come through our major metropolitan areas," Millar stated. "The National Transportation Safety Board raised this issue many years ago, and it's just not been taken up. The railroads are very opposed to being forced to reroute their most dangerous cargos around our major target cities."

Millar adds rerouting could potentially prevent another disaster in a big community. Notably, Norfolk Southern's train passed through Cleveland before coming off the tracks in East Palestine.

"It's a serious national question for Cleveland and other cities: Are the railroads bringing their most dangerous cargos right through our city unnecessarily?" Miller asked. "Because they could be using alternative routes."

Still, Antonio says the amendments are just the first steps in making railroads safer. The Democrat expects backing from Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine in the coming weeks.

"I don't think this is a [partisan] issue, to add some of these safety policies into that budget," Antonio said "I believe we will be successful."

The Ohio House already passed the budget without the amendments, meaning both chambers would have to approve it again for it to become law. 

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