HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A bill meant to improve rail safety is advancing in the U.S. Senate after the commerce committee voted in its favor last week. If approved, it could also remedy blocked crossings in Houston.
The Railway Safety Act comes weeks after the Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals derailed near East Palestine, Ohio, leaving people across the country concerned about the railroad tracks in their own backyards.
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The bill sets a minimum crew size of two, requires wayside detectors at regular intervals, and imposes stiffer penalties for safety violations.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called on the Senate to approve the bill because it also addresses the constant problem of trains blocking railroad crossings in the city.
"Blocked crossings create community instability, affecting public safety and quality of life. It is important that we act and we act now," Turner said at a press conference on Monday.
There are over 700 active and busy railroad crossings within Houston city limits, officials said.
According to Turner, each day an average of 114 trains operate in the Houston area. On some days, that number is as high as 124, and many of the trains are well over a mile long.
"When a stoppage occurs, trains will block a railroad crossing for an average of 20 minutes or more. And 20 minutes is being very conservative," Turner said.
The stoppages delay emergency responses and reduce mobility for Houstonians trying to get to work, go home, or take their children to school.
Blocked crossings are a particular concern on Houston's eastside, where a high density of complaints are reported.
According to Councilmember Robert Gallegos, 1,300 of the 2,800 blocked crossing complaints reported in Texas in 2021 came from Houston's eastside alone.
East Houston has three highly-active rail corridors that cross and form a triangle, known as the "train trap triangle."
Gallegos said that one or two of the rails are occupied by stopped trains multiple times a day. Sometimes, all three are stopped, leaving the community completely encircled.
These blockages can last several minutes to several hours, which causes pedestrians and motorists to take unsafe actions to try and get around them, Gallegos said.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz voted against the Railway Safety Act in committee.
He argues that the bill gives too much power to the Biden Administration in its attempts to restrict rail shipments of coal, oil and other fossil fuels.