To Prevent Future Rail Tragedies, We Need to Nationalize the Rail System

On February 3, a freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, resulting in a massive explosion that released toxic plumes into the atmosphere. Among the cars that derailed were five carrying vinyl chloride. Exposure to this chemical is associated with increased risks of certain cancers. Norfolk Southern, the $53.6 billion company behind the disaster, has been active — and successful—in lobbying against safety improvements. 

The environmental disaster resulted in the evacuation of at least 5,000 nearby residents, and the company’s controlled burn is releasing hydrogen chloride and phosgene. The latter was used as a weapon in World War I — it can cause difficulty breathing and vomiting. Despite the magnitude of the catastrophe, it has garnered little political debate and a muted response from the Biden administration, even as concerned analysts point to the failure of the federal government to properly regulate the industry as a root cause of the derailment.

Railroad workers have long been warning about the public health risks posed by an industry that, they argue, prioritizes profits over safety and worker wellbeing. The industry’s turn to precision scheduled railroading—in which freight systems are run with fewer workers, less downtime and longer and heavier trains — has been criticized by workers as a dangerous model that encourages lax safety standards. These concerns were among the grievances aired by railroad workers gearing up for a possible strike at the end of 2022, before their right to strike was blocked by Congress and the Biden administration. 

We spoke with two workers from Railroad Workers United (RWU), a rank-and-file union movement that has been publicly criticizing the greed of the rail industry and, increasingly, calling for public ownership. Hugh Sawyer is the treasurer for RWU and a locomotive engineer for Norfolk Southern, who works between Atlanta and Chattanooga, and has spent 35 years on the rails. Ross Grooters, co-chair of RWU, is a locomotive engineer based in central Iowa. ​“We need to re-regulate the railroads,” says Grooters, ​“and hold them accountable for what they’re doing.”

These conversations were held separately, but we have spliced them together and edited them for clarity.

Sarah Lazare: What do you see as the root problems that lead to derailments?

Ross Grooters: Any time you have a tragic derailment like East Palestine, Ohio, there is not any one cause; it is a series of failures. What we’ve been trying to say for a while now is it’s not a matter of if accidents will occur — it’s when and where. And that’s directly related to the corporate greed that’s turning railroads into banks to extract billions and billions of dollars from what should be critical infrastructure.

What we at Railroad Workers United have been trying to do is share some of the problems in our industry. The industry has been operating on a model of precision scheduled railroading. That’s how the industry maximizes shareholder dividends. It’s an operating model that further financializes the railroads through cuts to the operations. There is no margin for error. Staffing levels have been drastically cut — in the last five years, but over a long-term trajectory as well. You have fewer workers doing more work faster. What that means is you have less maintenance on equipment, locomotives, and tracks, and less eyes looking for potential problems, less doing the kinds of safety inspections that are necessary to keep railroads moving safely.

This has also manifested in deregulation. Railroads are quick to jump on any opportunity to find exemptions in already favorable safety regulations. The frequency of inspections per car has been reduced, but also the amount of time required to spend on each car. There’s been a little written about electronic brakes. The braking technology is from the 1860s and hasn’t changed a great deal. There are technological upgrades that could make it more safe. That’s an example of a regulation.

[Editor’s note: Thanks to reporting from The Lever, we know that the company was part of a successful effort to sink a federal rule that would have required braking systems to be upgraded and made more safe. The train that derailed in Ohio was equipped with old braking technology.]

Under-staffing is a critical component. And then there’s the long and heavy trains: They are way too long and way too heavy. In my career, it would have been notable to talk about a 120 car train: That was a big train, probably somewhere around a mile and a quarter long. Now we’re looking at 10,000, 15,000, and even 18,000 foot trains — more than three miles long. Because they’re longer and heavier, these trains derail more frequently.

[Editor’s note: The U.S. Government Accountability Office found in May 2019 that trains are, indeed, getting longer. The agency notes that braking ​“can be more complex for these longer trains.” There is some evidence that longer trains have a greater chance of an accident per train.]

Lazare: The car that derailed in East Palestine was around 150 cars long. Do you consider that a long train?

Grooters: It is a pretty typical length today. Ten years ago that would have been an extraordinarily long train.

All of these things have created this perfect storm. This is anecdotal, but late last year, we had a major derailment in Iowa. I was looking for a news story to get published. It wasn’t up yet, but what I saw triggered some red flags, because there were so many derailments I did find in Iowa that I had no idea about. Before, if a derailment happened anywhere remotely near me, it was something my coworkers and I would discuss. We’ve become desensitized by that.

Hugh Sawyer: It’s not just a failure of the railroad companies: It’s a failure of the federal government. I worked out of Atlanta, and I witnessed an incredible upsurge of derailments in ​‘21 and ​‘22. I always wondered why the federal government isn’t out here looking at this stuff. We need a whole new safety system.

We have been diminishing inspections of trains, in collusion with the federal railroad administration. We’ve gutted our force by 30 percent, in exchange for which you get this kind of occurrence. [Editor’s note: In the past six years, major freight companies in the United States have cut about 30 percent of workers.]

The country would collapse tomorrow if the railroads shut down, which is why they wouldn’t let us strike. But they wouldn’t even give us sick days.

Lazare: When Congress and the Biden administration came together to block railroad workers’ right to strike at the end of last year, did this empower the rail companies to continue these unsafe practices?

Grooters: This situation has been building for years, if not decades. It’s systemic to the industry. It’s not going to get resolved by one labor contract. We will need the help of federal regulators, if not complete pullback from the current model. It’s being operated fully from a profit motive above all else.

Lazare: To put it differently, were these safety issues part of why rail workers were prepared to go on strike?

Grooters: I believe workers were prepared to go on strike about this. Sick time got a lot of attention. Needing paid sick time off was one reason for the strike. That was sort of a stand-in for all the problems we’ve been experiencing in the workplace and trying to warn about. So, the short answer is: yes. I think that many of my coworkers are very concerned about safety on the job, and know that this has become a much more unsafe work environment.

Lazare: What is the solution? How can we make railroads more safe?

Grooters: We need to re-regulate the railroads and hold them accountable for what they’re doing. We need to start treating this like the critical infrastructure it is and pull back from the current operating model. All our other infrastructure in this country is owned largely for the good of the public by some sort of public means. It is time to start looking at that, because these carriers are not going to remove the risk enough to make sure another incident like East Palestine doesn’t occur.

Sawyer: Railroad Workers United has come to the conclusion that these companies are out for profit, out for short-term profit, really. I don’t know how to express this correctly. There is no feeling of responsibility that we’re part of the logistics network that’s critical to this country. The railroads have been nationalized before. There was such a failure of movement of freight during World War I, the federal government took control of the railroads. Your federal highway system, it’s all publicly owned and publicly funded. Maybe we need to publicly own the railroads, and by that we mean infrastructure, and we will lease it to anyone who wants to move freight.

Right now we have gutted maintenance of our rail system, gutted maintenance on safety inspections. They’re just out to make the most amount of money with the least amount of people, without regard to anything else, and that is not sustainable far into the country’s future.

Lazare: Do you believe there should be public ownership of railroads?

Grooters: There are a number of different ways to do this but, essentially, yes. If we are operating this out of profit motive, we’re not going to see safe railroads for our communities and the people doing the work.

Lazare: Tell me about who Railroad Workers United is.

Sawyer: We’re the rank and file membership of all 13 rail unions, and our goal is to make the unions’ leadership work together trying to improve the working conditions.

Sarah is the Editor for Workday Magazine.

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