WASHINGTON — A group of Republicans and Democrats in the Senate has proposed legislation to mandate that the Transportation Department tighten safety rules for freight rail, the first glimmer of bipartisan activity on the issue since a train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, last month.
The measure by Senators Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and J.D. Vance, a Republican, both of Ohio, would strengthen notification and inspection requirements for trains carrying hazardous materials, increase fines for safety violations by rail carriers and authorize $27 million for research on safety improvements. But it would stop short of dictating major regulatory changes, leaving the matter to the Transportation Department.
The bipartisan nature of the bill — which is co-sponsored by Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Josh Hawley of Missouri, both Republicans — indicates that it may be able to gain traction in the Senate, where most major legislation needs 60 votes to advance. But it is not clear whether the measure can draw support in the Republican-led House.
“It shouldn’t take a massive railroad disaster for elected officials to put partisanship aside and work together for the people we serve — not corporations like Norfolk Southern,” Mr. Brown said in a statement, referring to the derailed train’s operator. “Rail lobbyists have fought for years to protect their profits at the expense of communities like East Palestine and Steubenville and Sandusky.”
The official response to the derailment has been characterized by intense partisanship, with Republicans criticizing the Biden administration’s handling of the derailment and subsequent ecological disaster and savaging the president and Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary. Democrats have pointed to the Trump administration loosening safety regulations.
Lawmakers from both parties have escalated their responses to the disaster. Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, called on the chief executive of Norfolk Southern, Alan Shaw, to testify on Capitol Hill. Mr. Shaw confirmed on Wednesday that he would voluntarily testify to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on March 9, according to a company spokeswoman.
The House Oversight and Accountability Committee started an investigation into the Biden administration’s handling of the derailment, while two other panels — Transportation and Infrastructure, and Energy and Commerce — have formally requested information.
Mr. Schumer on Wednesday praised the forthcoming bill, saying he was hopeful that Republicans and Democrats could agree on a legislative response to last month’s derailment.
“In the aftermath of the terrible accident in East Palestine, this is precisely the kind of proposal we need to see in Congress: a bipartisan rail safety bill, one that includes provisions relevant to the accident that happened a month ago,” he said, adding that he would do “whatever I can” to make sure it passed the Senate and could clear Congress.
The legislation emerged a day after two House Democrats introduced a more restrictive bill that would impose more stringent rules — including a slower speed limit and requirements for more sophisticated equipment — on trains carrying a wide variety of hazardous substances.
The bipartisan Senate measure would strengthen rail car and railway detector inspection requirements such as mandating that a hotbox detector scan trains carrying hazardous materials every 10 miles.
Federal inspectors in Ohio found that the crew was not alerted of an overheating wheel bearing until the train passed a sensor not far from where it derailed.
The Senate proposal would also require rail carriers to provide advance notice to state emergency response officials about what they are transporting. The bill would also authorize $22 million for the Federal Railroad Administration and $5 million for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to research and develop stronger tank car safety features.
“Through this legislation, Congress has a real opportunity to ensure that what happened in East Palestine will never happen again,” Mr. Vance said in a statement. “We owe every American the peace of mind that their community is protected from a catastrophe of this kind.”
A Transportation Department spokeswoman said Mr. Buttigieg appreciated the senators’ swift action to advance regulations that he proposed last week, such as increasing fines for safety violations and funding for training and strengthening rules for high-hazard, flammable trains.
Some lawmakers have said they are not ready to take legislative action. Representative Sam Graves, Republican of Missouri and the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told Fox News last month that he wanted to fully understand the facts of the derailment before Congress acted.