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Cincinnati Council joins other leaders in asking for stronger railroad safety regulations

Workers continue to clean up remaining tank cars, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in East Palestine, Ohio, following the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern freight train derailment.
Matt Freed
Workers continue to clean up remaining tank cars, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in East Palestine, Ohio, following the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern freight train derailment.

A resolution passed by Cincinnati Council Thursday urges federal regulators to pass new safety rules for railroads.

The measure asks for safety measures to improve braking, labor conditions and increase inspections.

Council Member Mark Jeffreys says it's a response to the disastrous derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio, three weeks ago.

"There's a lot here that we can't control — railroads are federally regulated," Jeffreys said. "But the purpose of a resolution is to express our will and desire to not remain silent where we feel like we should have a voice."

As NPR reports, a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board stopped short of declaring a conclusive cause of the derailment. Operators apparently tried to stop the train after a wheel bearing overheated and eventually failed.

The derailment of 38 cars on the 149-car train included 11 cars carrying toxic chemicals.

Earlier this week, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called on Congress to "untie" the agency's hands in regards to legislation that weakened the Department of Transportation's ability to enforce certain safety and accountability rules. Meanwhile, the Ohio legislature is weighing changes to the state's transportation budget related to railroads. Proposals include requiring all trains in the state to continue to have at least two crew members, which is the standard now, and demands for updated cameras, sensors and other components of wayside detector systems, which are currently not regulated. Railroads have pushed back on these proposed changes.

Council Members Meeka Owens and Seth Walsh cosponsored Cincinnati's resolution with Jeffreys.

"We shouldn't be silent on this matter," Walsh said. "It is really important that we use our voices right now because it did have an impact on us, even so many miles away."

Local officials say they're completely confident that Cincinnati's drinking water is safe despite low-levels of contamination upstream in the Ohio River. The resolution also thanks Greater Cincinnati Water Works for ensuring the safety of drinking water.

RELATED: Here's how contaminants are detected along the 981-mile Ohio River

City officials say the derailment disaster is separate from the potential sale of the Cincinnati Southern Railway to Norfolk Southern.

"Even though there are two conversations that are happening here — one about the transformative ways that the potential sale of the railroad can really impact our community — it's also very important that the community knows that their safety is our top priority," Owens said.

The resolution specifically calls on Norfolk Southern to "work with federal partners to lay out plans for improving rail safety, building trust with communities and governments across the country."

RELATED: What is the Cincinnati Southern Railway worth? Documents show a wide range

The sale would have to be approved by Cincinnati voters and it's likely to appear on the November ballot. A few things need to happen before that, however: a state law change to allow for restricting the revenue to be used for infrastructure maintenance, and a vote of Cincinnati City Council to put the sale on the ballot.

Some residents have asked City Council during public comment to reconsider the sale. Council doesn't have the option to keep it from the ballot.

Read the full resolution below:

Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.