Reported by Mark Gruenberg for People’s World.
A fiery freight train wreck in East Palestine, Ohio, involving hazardous materials in tank cars, was a direct result of Norfolk Southern cost-cutting which led to little maintenance and an undiscovered safety problem, the top organization for rank-and-file railroaders says. And corporate greed to satisfy Wall Street led to the cuts, it adds.
The wreck could have been worse, Railroad Workers United added, had the 9,300-foot-long train not had a three-worker crew, rather than the single worker—the engineer—the nation’s big Class I freight railroads, including NS, have advocated for years.
The three crew members decoupled the locomotives and moved them to safety, preventing an even bigger disaster if the fire reached them. One crew member could not have done so.
Just before 9 pm on Feb. 3, one-third of the 150-car train derailed, piled up, and caught fire in the small town of East Palestine, Ohio, south of Youngstown and just a stone’s throw from the Pennsylvania border. Twenty cars, including ten which derailed, carried hazardous materials, including five with vinyl chloride. At least one ruptured.
Nobody was killed or injured, thanks to the fact the 18,000-ton train had three crew members: The engineer, the conductor, and a trainee. Crumpled cars jackknifed off the tracks from the rest of the train. But they decoupled the locomotives and prevented the fire’s spread.
Contrary to longtime practice, the Norfolk Southern train, which started in Madison County, Ill., was backloaded with 40% of its weight—the heavy tank cars—at the rear. It was going downhill towards Pennsylvania with lighter cars in between them and the locomotives. The results were predictable: Those squeezed cars derailed when the axle of one failed.
That’s as a result of railroads’ Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR), a practice which lines up cars in the order they’ll be unloaded, rather than safely—all to meet the ever-greater demands of Wall Street profiteers intent on squeezing every nickel out of the railroads, regardless of workers, communities, and safety, RWU said.
“While thousands were and remain evacuated, and property damage to both rail and non-railroad property will no doubt soar into the millions, we dodged a bullet as no rail workers and no trackside residents were killed. This time,” its board declared.
In this photo provided by Melissa Smith, a train fire is seen from her farm in East Palestine, Ohio, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. A train derailment and resulting large fire prompted an evacuation order in the Ohio village near the Pennsylvania state line on Friday night, covering the area in billows of smoke lit orange by the flames below. | AP/Melissa Smith
Carriers’ “risky practices” feature cost-cutting, including reduced maintenance and inspections and also cutting the number of workers especially trained to perform those duties. As a result, “a 19th-century style mechanical failure of the axle” due to an overheated bearing on one freight car, went undetected and failed on the way downhill in East Palestine, sending that car off the tracks and taking the 49 others with it.
“There is no way in the 21st century, save from a combination of incompetence and disregard for public safety, that such a defect should still be threatening our communities,” it said.
Putting the heavy tank cars at the rear of the train was another failure, which RWU—a coalition of rank and file workers from all rail crafts—said caused the crash. It noted “40% of the weight of NS 32N was grouped at the rear third of the train, which has always been bad practice and made more dangerous with longer, heavier trains. This fact almost certainly made the wreck dynamically worse. But increasingly the PSR-driven carriers, driven to cut costs and crew time by any means necessary, cut corners and leave crews and the public at risk.”
Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department, which includes all the rail unions, said much the same thing about carriers cutting corners in pursuit of greater profits to show and flow to Wall Street.
Regan extended that point to bosses at all forms of transportation and stated it to the now-Republican-run—and thus corporate-leaning—House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Feb. 1, days before the East Palestine crash.
“And it is your constituents who pay the price” in terms of both safety hazards and supply chain snarls, he told the lawmakers, directly countering corporate arguments that blame the workers for the chaos on the roads, in ports, and on rail tracks.
“From rail and aviation to maritime and trucking, employers are simply not investing in their employees. Nor are they investing in the critical infrastructure on which our economy and communities depend,” Regan said.
“Transportation labor has been sounding the alarm about the severe consequences of slashing workforces in the freight industry and investments in infrastructure long before the pandemic brought these challenges squarely into the spotlight. I’m not sure how much louder we can be at this point.
“And despite the fact that transportation unions and their members have worked tirelessly to shore up and improve our transportation network and systems, I’m sad to say there are those who continue to try to blame the workers for supply chain problems.
“Labor unions, the workers they represent, and even this administration…have all been scapegoated… Their claims are hollow but advance their narrative anyway to score cheap political points and shield themselves from blame. The truth is, since the start of the pandemic, corporations have vacuumed up massive, record-setting profits.”
A check of the Association of American Railroads’ lobby produced no comment on the crash, though the “carousel” atop its home page lauded freight rail’s safety record. Norfolk Southern announced on its website that customers “should expect delays of at least 24 hours” in freight traveling between Cleveland and Pittsburgh and that it’s “established a family assistance center to address the needs of the community and help those most immediately impacted.”
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