Rail carriers are operating longer, heavier freight trains, and with fewer workers than ever. The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, is a reminder that the issues railworkers nearly struck over last year are far from resolved.

This video screenshot released by the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) shows a freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3, 2023. (NTSB / Handout / Xinhua via Getty Images)

Shortly after Norfolk Southern’s 32N train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, railroad workers began speaking up about the connection between the disaster and the problems that came to a head late last year, when twelve rail unions nearly went on strike. As one Norfolk Southern employee told Motherboard, these kinds of catastrophes “are going to keep happening if regulators continue to allow this business model to ravage our nation’s freight rail system in the pursuit of profit.” Back in 2022, railworkers were stymied by Joe Biden and Congress, who imposed a weak agreement that failed to address the workers’ key complaints, but the issues that drove them to the brink of a strike remain unresolved.

Those sticking points concern the consequences of precision scheduled railroading (PSR), which includes cost-cutting measures and a just-in-time approach that translates to more train cars, heavier loads, and fewer workers. Rail carriers have slashed their workforce recently: collectively, Class I carriers reduced theirs by almost one-third over the past six years. This has made them the darlings of Wall Street as increased operating ratios lead to more money for shareholders.

It is such lean staffing, and the overwork and lack of control over scheduling that have followed, which pushed railworkers toward striking last year. Rail carriers’ downsizing of their workforce means that those who remain are tied to work at almost all times: no sick days, unpredictable schedules, overwork. It all adds up not only to misery, but to a greater potential for mistakes in an industry where accidents can cost lives.

The 32N that derailed in East Palestine had a three-person crew: two Norfolk Southern workers plus a trainee. That’s one more than can be found on most freight trains. While union contracts mandate a two-person minimum crew size — incredibly, there are no regulations on freight train crew size, though a two-person minimum has been proposed — some companies have experimented with reducing crews even further: Union Pacific has pushed to test having just one person on a train.

Fewer workers means less eyes on the train to catch the myriad possible defects and failures that could lead to a catastrophic derailment. As More Perfect Union reported, Norfolk Southern reduced its workforce by one-third between 2002 and 2022; in that same time period, it doubled its profits. In 2022, the company reported record operating profits of $4.8 billion; earlier that year, it announced a $10-billion stock buyback program. As one railworker told More Perfect Union, “They cut their workforce to bare bones, and now they’re paying the price for it because the wheels are falling off the train.”

The comment about wheels falling off trains concerns a video that emerged shortly after the 32N’s derailment. The footage, captured by an equipment plant’s security camera in Salem, Ohio, some twenty miles of track prior to the derailment, shows a car axle on fire. As the American Prospect reported, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said that the crew on board had been notified of the mechanical failure, which led them to engage the emergency brakes, which led to the derailment: “At time of writing, it was not known whether the hotbox detector, a device used to assess the parts of a rail car, in Salem or the one in East Palestine alerted the crew on board.” More recent reporting by ProPublica found that Norfolk Southern allows a monitoring team to “instruct train crews to ignore alerts from train track sensors designed to flag potential mechanical failures,” such as the alert the 32N’s crew may have received after crossing one such censor in Salem.

There is also the question of the 32N’s inspection by railworkers other than the crew on board. Every car that is picked up by a train is supposed to be inspected by either a conductor or car inspectors at a rail terminal. But it isn’t only train crews who are facing staffing cuts. It’s rail yard workers like car inspectors too (not to mention track inspectors, who can spot defects in the rail itself). Those inspectors, including ones employed by Norfolk Southern, have less time to inspect trains that have grown longer than ever.

As Motherboard reported, seven years ago, Norfolk Southern management recommended that inspectors spend no more than two and a half minutes per car; that time limit has been reduced to ninety seconds in more recent years, no time at all to catch possible defects on a one-hundred-foot car. Further, company management

will pressure workers not to report safety defects they discover, because fixing them will hurt PSR metrics such as the amount of time trains spend in the terminal, which, under PSR’s philosophy, is supposed to be as little as possible.

That push to reduce “dwelltime,” the amount of time trains spend in the terminal, also affects a train’s weight distribution. In the case of the 32N that derailed in East Palestine, much has been made of whether the train’s weight was unevenly distributed — too heavy at the back, too light in the middle — which would have made the train harder to control and could have contributed to the derailment and jackknifing that occurred when the crew activated the emergency braking system upon learning of the mechanical failure.

Whereas best practices are for a train to be built with more uniform weight distribution, PSR means trains go on the road without waiting for cargo that would make for a safer distribution; there is less time to rearrange cars and less time to wait for more appropriate cargo to come in before building a train. Norfolk Southern has denied that this was the case for the derailed 32N, insisting that the weight was “uniform throughout.” But many workers, including Railroad Workers United, a cross-union railworker organization, say that is unlikely.

The 32N had 150 cars, making it nearly two miles long. It weighed more than 18,000 tons. In response to workers’ assertions that the train’s length may have played a role in the derailment, Norfolk Southern has been quick to state that the 32N actually used to be longer and heavier before being split into two, lighter trains. But that a train of that size is not out of the ordinary only underlines the extremes to which PSR has pushed the industry.

The United States has notably high rates of train derailments compared to many other countries, and the derailment in East Palestine should be cause for a reckoning. Regulators should implement the transportation safety rules and regulations that carriers, including Norfolk Southern, have blocked, and they should listen to the railworkers who have said for many years that the conditions in their industry have become a matter of life and death not only for themselves, but for everyone who lives anywhere near a train track.

In the longer term, the rail carriers have shown time and again that they cannot be trusted with such critical infrastructure. They were willing to force a rail strike, effectively holding the economy hostage, rather than relent in giving workers sick days, and they are willing to endanger communities like East Palestine rather than give up their insatiable quest for greater profits. Nationalizing the railroads would take such decision-making out of their hands.

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