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VIDEO: Freight trains in the U.S. are a disaster waiting to happen

Last month, VICE Media exposed the dangers of a new business model taking hold in the freight rail industry called Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR). The goal of PSR is to line the pockets of wealthy shareholders by prioritizing cost cutting and profits over safety and service.

Now, VICE News has released a companion video that further explains how PSR jeopardizes safety by forcing frontline freight rail workers to do more with less.

VICE’s investigative reporting is driven by freight rail workers and their unions who say they have an obligation to sound the alarm.

America’s freight rail workforce is being drastically slashed, all in the name of cost cutting. The workers who are left are taking on more responsibilities, and report being pressured to meet unattainable standards and arbitrary deadlines. Any focus on safety—once a hallmark of an industry that uses complex, heavy machinery to transport everything from grain to hazardous chemicals—has gone out the window. Those who have worked in the industry for decades say they are seeing more accidents and derailments now than at any other time in their careers.

In practical terms, here is just a small sampling of what workers are reporting on the safety impacts of PSR:

  • In just a few years, the freight rail workforce has been slashed by 25%—leaving behind far fewer employees than are needed to operate the freight network safely. These massive cuts have also fostered a culture of fear from retaliation, preventing employees from speaking out as conditions worsen.
  • The federal government requires train cars to be inspected by skilled, trained workers. Workers tasked with this job now have to inspect exponentially more rail cars in a fraction of the time, barely giving them enough time to walk the entire train and complete proper inspections.
  • Additionally, shops and yards that once performed inspections along routes have been closed. In other cases, routes have been changed altogether, meaning there are both fewer inspection points, and cars stop for inspections less frequently.
  • Under the PSR model, freight carriers are operating fewer but considerably longer trains. These longer trains are assembled haphazardly, including positioning cars in ways that are unsafe and risk derailments. Further, railroads are regularly running trains that are more than three miles long, with little regard for safety, adequate training, or consideration for how these trains affect the communities they pass through.
  • Maintenance, including the maintenance of grade-crossing signals, is deferred as long as possible. Those responsible for maintaining freight train signal systems report having larger territory to cover, more work to complete, and less time and manpower to complete their safety-sensitive tasks.
  • In an effort to get trains in service as fast as possible, supervisors are signing off on safety checklists—even after workers refused to do so, having flagged equipment as damaged or non-compliant.
  • Certain employees performing safety-critical work have been pushed to compensate for mass layoffs by working 16 hours per shift or more, discouraged from taking lunch, water, and even bathroom breaks, and are sometimes required to work overtime or risk losing their jobs.

As one veteran worker put it, “it’s only a matter of time before fatigued workers, unrealistic inspection policies, and unqualified inspections result in a major incident in someone’s neighborhood.”

Don’t miss VICE’s must-watch video.