The fiery train derailment that led to thousands being forced to evacuate their homes in East Palestine, Ohio, didn’t have to happen. This is what the workers of Railroad Workers United, or RWU, inter-union caucus argue. And, they warn, if action is not taken against corrosive industry trends, the Ohio disaster will be one of more to come.
On February 3, a 150-car Norfolk Southern train derailed near the Ohio town. About 20 of the cars were considered to contain hazardous materials; 10 of those cars were involved in a pileup of 50 cars, five of which contained vinyl chloride—a carcinogenic and flammable chemical.
The RWU argues that antiquated regulation and corporate malpractice led to the potentially generationally damaging incident, a primary culprit being Precision Scheduled Railroading, or PSR. The practice, dubbed by some workers as “positive shareholder reaction,” manages freight movement by the individual car level, as opposed to the whole train—ensuring train cars are constantly on the move. In practice, this has cut jobs, consolidated dispatch centers, and made trains less safe, as fewer workers have less time to conduct checks on more train cars.
Based on its analysis, the RWU says “the immediate cause of the wreck appears to have been a nineteenth-century style mechanical failure of the axle on one of the cars—an overheated bearing—leading to derailment and then jackknifing tumbling cars.”
Moreover, the train appeared to have had its collective weight unbalanced; prior to PSR, the caucus said, trains would be built with the heavier cars on the head, and the lighter ones bringing up the rear. Such a practice would prevent what happened in Ohio: heavier cars slamming into lighter ones in front of them, causing the exact jackknifing that had occurred last week. The train allegedly had 40 percent of its weight on the rear one-third of the train.
Fortunately, despite these failures, the train’s three-person crew was able to quickly mobilize together and minimize damage. As railroads have brazenly proposed cutting crews to just one member, thank goodness that was not the case here.
“The short-term profit imperative, the so-called “cult of the Operating Ratio”—of NS and the other Class 1 railroads—has made cutting costs, employees, procedures, and resources the top priority,” the RWU said. Norfolk Southern recently reported record fourth quarter and annual revenues; just last year, the company announced $10 billion in stock buybacks. Meanwhile, its workers still don’t even have guaranteed paid sick leave.
The workers’ warnings here follow a continual campaign for better working conditions and safer rail outcomes. After the government in December imposed a contract on workers that did not include much-needed paid sick leave, workers continued rallying for such benefits as well as the guarantee of at least two-person crews and the elimination of PSR.
Nevertheless, during his State of the Union address, President Biden did not mention the plight of rail workers, nor did he even discuss the disastrous rail derailment. Workers’ efforts are not falling on completely closed ears, however; Senators Bernie Sanders and Mike Braun are holding a Thursday press conference to demand paid sick leave for rail workers.
“The wreck of Train 32N has been years in the making. What other such train wrecks await us remains to be seen,” the RWU said. “But given the modus operandi of the Class One rail carriers, we can no doubt expect future disasters of this nature.”