The nation’s freight railroads were barely out of the headlines following December’s threatened labor strike when they exploded into prominence once again in mid-February after a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed in the small town of East Palestine, Ohio.
Although no one was killed, the Biden administration got a black eye for its slow response and the public was suddenly shocked to learn that train derailments are a daily occurrence in the United States, including trains that routinely haul hazmats through populated areas.
The railroad’s decision to blow up the wrecked train in what it euphemistically termed “a controlled burn” created an even worse public relations nightmare for NS and the government agencies that okayed setting the fire when a thick plume of black smoke filled Americans’ television screens, sickened local residents, and appears to have killed hundreds of local animals and fish.
Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg did himself – and his ambition for running for president – no credit when in interviews conducted at the same time he joked around and seemed to dismiss the incident by pointing out that there are more than 1,000 train derailments that occur each year After Buttigieg’s failure to say or do anything useful, the local mayor said he shouldn’t visit the town.
In addition, NS has come under particular scrutiny for the operational changes to its system that were wrought by Precision Scheduled Railroading, the operations model that swept through the industry throughout the past five years.
PSR imposes an overwhelming emphasis on cost cutting to boost shareholder returns, including lengthening trains, sidelining equipment and slashing large numbers of personnel.
The Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen reported that that until three years ago, NS had electronic leaders in the part of its system where East Palestine is located. This equipment helps maintain devices like hot-box detectors, which some believe may have prevented the accident from every happening.
Reports say the National Transportation Safety Board believes the derailment may have started with an overheated wheel bearing. However, the board has yet to conclude its investigation.
The union put the blame squarely on the railroad for cutting of staff to the point where even the hotbox leaders in place could not be properly maintained.
We will need to see the NTSB’s final report before we can make an unbiased opinion in that regard, but in the meantime it’s not surprising railroad management and PSR have fallen under suspicion.
But so far, suspicion is all that we have. The Government Accountability Office recently announced that its studies of any connection between PSR and a negative impact on safety have been inconclusive about such a link.
The Federal Railroad Administration also is continuing a number of studies into whether such a connection exists. The railroads themselves say there is no connection. Longer trains and rail traffic congestion due to fewer operating personnel actually has led to lower train speeds on average.
What we learned last fall during the tumultuous rail labor contract negotiations is that train crews at Class 1 railroads routinely suffer from exhaustion and burnout, causing some to leave long-time careers and the rest to rebel against draconian sick leave policies (see related article above).
The Republicans who now control the House of Representatives have already announced that they will be holding hearings look into the Biden administration’s handling of rail safety, which after East Palestine also has drawn criticism from Democrat members.
~ by David Sparkman