Experts say trains are becoming less safe. Here are the possible reasons why.
The Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, has left the small community devastated and questions about the environmental and public health impact unanswered. It also spurred calls for action to hold the freight rail industry accountable and steps to prevent such a disaster from happening again.
For their part, the railroads share "a singular mission of taking meaningful steps to further improve safety,” according to a statement from the Association of American Railroads.
Railroad safety: Indiana communities at risk for train disasters like the one that devastated Ohio town
Still, the incident raises concerns about the safety of trains amid changes in how rail companies operate.
“It’s profits over people,” said Kenny Edwards, Indiana state legislative director for SMART Transportation Division, an industry workers union. “As they make cut-backs and changes, disasters like East Palestine will be more and more prevalent.”
Many of the changes stem from what’s called Precision Scheduled Railroading, a controversial innovation marked by longer trains, workforce cuts, and industry pushback against safety protocols.
Industry runs miles-long trains
As part of PSR, rail companies have extended train lengths. A 2017 U.S. Government Accountability Report found the average length for freight trains in 2008 was under one mile. The AAR did not provide an average train length for 2022, but said 95% of the time, trains are less than 11,000 feet long (just over two miles). Longer trains have more equipment that could malfunction and can be more difficult to handle, Edwards said.
The way a train is arranged or made up — meaning the mix of loaded and empty cars and locomotives — also can impact its stability. Those issues can be more pronounced on longer trains, the GAO found.
Industry slashes the workforce
Since 2015, the major railroad companies have cut their workforce by 29%, or 45,000 employees, according to Congressional testimony last year.
“It is simply impossible to provide an equivalent level of service after eliminating a third of the workforce in less than a decade,” a labor leader testified.
For new employees, training also has declined from what used to be around six months to less than two months, Edwards said.
Industry pushes back against regulation
Railroads spend heavily lobbying in Washington, according to records analyzed by Open Secrets, a transparency organization. Norfolk Southern, among the biggest spenders, paid $1.8 million to more than 30 lobbyists last year.
When the Trump administration announced plans to pare back rules, Norfolk Southern wrote a 23-page submission that included rules and guidance it would like to see removed: “NS appreciates the opportunity to participate in this wide-sweeping, and necessary, review of the regulatory burdens...," the letter said.
Just a few months before the East Palestine derailment, Norfolk Southern's CEO met with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. A memo drafted by an agency lawyer revealed the purpose: So the CEO could raise concerns about a proposed rule requiring most trains to have two crew members.
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This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Experts worry trains are now less safe. Here are the reasons why.