People’s World special report: Next East Palestine waiting to happen
Cleanup of portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Another East Palestine event is just waiting to happen. | Gene J. Puskar/AP

WASHINGTON—One year after a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed and crashed, with chemicals pouring from its tank cars to poison the small town of East Palestine, Ohio, there’s a consensus among railroaders and their unions:

Another such disaster is waiting to happen.

And it could occur, they add, not in a small rural town with one rail track, such as East Palestine, but in a major rail hub with many miles of tracks and hosting hundreds of daily freight trains. In other words, a big city. Like—the obvious one–Chicago.

The big freight railroads would shrug it off, says Ed Dowell of the Train Dispatchers. After all, data shows there are three accidents a day on U.S. freight rail tracks.

“In the rail industry, they accept the loss of life,” he says.

The best way to stop a future catastrophe? A new federal law forcing railroads, notably the big Class I freight carriers, to put safety over profits. But right now, that’s unlikely to happen, thanks to congressional gridlock and corporate lobbying.

In other words, the aim is legislative re-regulation of an industry that was deregulated decades ago and claims—wrongly—it can regulate itself.

The result? Railroaders are “doing more with less” which “endangers the public and our members,” says Eddie Hall, the new president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen/Teamsters. Workers have less training, less time for inspections, and less protection from honchos’ retaliation.

“East Palestine was not the beginning of the crisis” over safety on the nation’s freight railroads, says Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department, who has lobbied lawmakers and the Biden administration on the issue.

“It’s the culmination of years of degradation of safety. The industry would like to regulate themselves and that is something we cannot accept.”

“Congress still has not acted,” adds Biden Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, referring to the comprehensive pro-safety re-regulation bill Regan and unions campaign for. “If they did, it would be a decisive victory for rail safety and for you.

“Our department would have tougher tools” to pursue recalcitrant railroads with. “Such as more inspections, more enforcement, and higher fines” for law-breakers.

Regan estimates rail labor is still  “one or two Republicans short” of the ten GOP senators whom they need to pass comprehensive re-regulation, along with all the Democrats and independents. Rail industry lobbying helps sidetrack it. Legislation needs 60 votes to avoid Senate filibusters.

Swayed by lobbyists

“There are some aspects” of inaction on rail safety where recalcitrant Republicans “are swayed by high-paid lobbyists,” Regan says. “There’s sympathy” from lawmakers on safety “as long as they don’t have to take a vote.”

But he admits gridlock plays a role, too. If leaders “weren’t haggling about the budget, this would be on the (Senate) floor.” And the outlook in the GOP-run is even shakier. “They’ve had one committee hearing; that’s all.”

The Feb. 2, 2023, Norfolk Southern freight train wreck in small and rural East Palestine loosed hazardous chemicals that poisoned its air and groundwater. It sent a mushroom cloud billowing overhead and killed pets and thousands of fish.

It also tanked home values—if you could find buyers—and sickened some residents, along with 39 Maintenance of the Way/Teamsters members sent to clean up the mess.

Meanwhile, the railroads cater to their Wall Street backers, who demand profits over people. Their clout is so huge that a hedge fund engineered the ouster of one rail CEO who paid attention to safety in favor of a profit-oriented honcho who’s willing to push its priority down.

“And there’s an omnipresent threat of harassment and intimidation” by line supervisors whose bonuses are tied to moving freight as fast as possible, and who view safety precautions as a roadblock, adds Jared Cassidy, assistant legislative director of Smart’s Transportation Division.

East Palestine’s fate shows re-regulation of the nation’s railroads is absolutely necessary, Regan, plus Cassidy, Regan, Hall, and other rail union leaders said in a February 1 Zoom press conference the day before the first anniversary of the disaster.

There’s also no question the railroads “want to regulate themselves” as almost every speaker said one way or another. In myriad ways, they don’t do so, the unionists said.

The litany of hazards the leaders detailed ranged from inadequate training to having untrained workers perform jobs mechanics would do—because the railroads have slashed 30,000 workers since 2015, including 1300 mechanics at one big freight railroad alone, down to 115,000 total.

Warning systems direct alarms far away when something goes awry on a freight train, such as the overheated broken freight car brakes that led to the East Palestine disaster.

In that crash “you had alert going to someone sitting at home in his living room, watching 19,000 miles of track on a screen,” says the Train Dispatchers’ Dowell. “And they’re constantly being harassed” by higher bosses, “’Move the train, move the train, move the train.’”

Trouble sensors along the tracks are too many miles apart, especially since trains are now two, three, or four miles long. Tracks badly need repair—but mid-level supervisors tell workers to ignore that.

Railroads force quick inspections

Railroads force workers to inspect locomotives and freight cars even more quickly, down to five seconds for a freight car with multiple rivets and wheel assemblies. Mid-level managers pressure workers to ignore flaws. And if the workers speak up about hazards, the rail bosses retaliate, the union leaders said.

And there’s a lack of human hands-on oversight. Railroads let workers go so they could switch to “precision scheduled railroading” in yet another attempt to save money.

“The rate of total accidents has risen by 19.5%” since 2015, one rail union speaker said. “Injuries increased 4.4%, train miles by 27%—and they cut the workforce by 20% while increasing overtime by 59%. And when the number of (freight) carloads declined by 10%, accidents should be going down. They went up.”

Railroads also lobby for one-person crews, which endangers safety, the railroaders say. There may be worker success on that, soon.

The Federal Railroad Administration sent a mandated two-person crew rule to Biden’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Biden Transportation Secretary Buttigieg promised action soon on several rules, though he didn’t specify which one.

But changing rules may not be enough. A succeeding administration could and would easily undo what workers want. Former Republican Oval Office occupant Donald Trump’s Republican regime proved that over and over again. So did right-wing ideologues in judicial robes, notably in Texas.

Meanwhile, Congress gridlocks on everything. And it’s influenced by increasing rail lobbying spending such as a 30% hike by Norfolk Southern in 2023, compared to the year before.

And public inattention doesn’t help. That led to a plea at the end of the press session with the rail union leaders: Call your representative. Call your senator.

“Don’t let this die,” Jared Cassidy of Smart Union’s Transportation Division urged reporters.

“Every day we have three major accidents” on freight rail lines and though they haven’t led to fatalities, they expose problems that left unsolved would lead to another East Palestine, he explained.

“This shouldn’t be just labor versus management” over safety “but about what’s going on” in the nation’s freight rail system “when these things happen. Things are going wrong every single day” and constituents should be concerned. After all, an East Palestine could happen to them.

“Money talks, but people talk louder.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.