Rail Must Prioritize Safety Over Profits
Since the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio, the full impact of the devastation to that community is yet to be seen. Although more than 1,000 derailments happen each year, it’s unacceptable that they are considered a simple cost of doing business. Our communities and the industries that rely on railroads to carry their products need and expect the rail industry to do better.
Whatever the National Transportation Safety Board ultimately determines caused the NS derailment, the freight rail industry has had clear and consistent warnings that its systemic program—Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR)—is off-track. It prioritizes profits over the health, safety, and welfare of employees and the communities through which freight rail traverses.
All seven Class I railroads reported that they ran longer trains with the intent of increasing efficiency, according to a 2022 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report examining PSR.
Since 2011, the length of the trains has nearly doubled, with one rail increasing the average train length from 5,250 feet in 2011 to nearly 7,000 feet in 2021.
In 2019, the GAO issued a report on freight train length stating, “To prevent derailment, stakeholders said it is important that longer trains are arranged appropriately and that crews are trained to operate them.”
Earlier in 2023, FRA Administrator Amit Bose warned Class 1 rail executives that they needed to improve their engineer and conductor training and certification programs. He questioned railroads’ ability to adequately employ and train staff to perform important safety-related job functions.
Shrinking Pool of Workers
The same 2022 GAO report disclosed that from 2011 through 2021, the number of employees across all Class I railroads decreased by about 28%. The largest percentage decrease was among “Maintenance of Equipment and Stores” employees, which includes mechanical staff responsible for maintaining equipment including railcars and locomotives. This category of rail worker shrunk by 40%—nearly half.
Last year I penned an op-ed highlighting my concerns that rail workers should receive a commensurate amount of sick leave as employees who work in the private sector. A national rail strike was averted in December 2022, but the question of providing more sick leave and better quality-of-life benefits to workers remains unanswered for most Class 1 railroad workers.
Drastic rail employee reductions combined with the increasing length of trains and a lack of the industry prioritizing its workers should cause concern.
It is unacceptable that rail companies continue to use a system that lines shareholder pockets while causing nationwide service disruptions and leading to dwindling numbers of rail workers, particularly amid ongoing supply chain challenges. It is unfathomable that they choose not to address these issues in light of continued derailments. The railroads simply cannot bury their heads in the sand and hope things will improve.
Recent bipartisan bills introduced in Congress attempt to address rail safety in measured, yet effective, ways. It will be critical that both parties work together to find common ground on provisions to address freight rail operational challenges, training and inspection requirements, train length, enhanced safety measures, and infrastructure improvements.
They must reach a consensus to ensure a safe and reliable freight rail system in the years to come.