Railroad Workers United (RWU) condemns the dangerous and historically unsafe practices by Class 1 rail carriers that resulted in this catastrophe that will impact the community of East Palestine Ohio for many years, if not forever. The root causes of this wreck are the same ones that have been singled out repeatedly, associated with the hedge fund initiated operating model known as “Precision Scheduled Railroading” (PSR). But risky practices, such as ever longer and heavier trains even precede PSR. The train that wrecked is a case in point, 9300 feet long, 18,000 tons. Other hallmarks of modern day railroading include deep cuts both maintenance and operating employees, poor customer service, deferred maintenance to rolling stock and infrastructure, long working hours and chronic fatigue, limited on-the-job training and high employee turnover.
Norfolk Southern train NS 32N with 150 cars on the manifest, derailed on Feb. 3 at 8:55pm. It consisted of 3 locomotives 141 loads and 9 empties. The train had a crew of 3 at the time of the wreck, consisting of an Engineer, a Conductor and a Conductor Trainee. 20 of its loaded cars were considered Hazmat by the railroad. 10 of those hazmat cars were involved in the 50-car pileup. Of those 10, 5 cars contained Vinyl Chloride, all of which were damaged and/or burned, with one of those leaking by design to relieve explosive pressure.
At this time, the immediate cause of the wreck appears to have been a 19th century style mechanical failure of the axle on one of the cars – an overheated bearing – leading to derailment and then jackknifing tumbling cars. There is no way in the 21st century, save from a combination of incompetence and disregard to public safety, that such a defect should still be threatening our communities.
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.
The crew was able to uncouple the locomotives and move them to safety, preventing an even bigger tragedy. This would not have been possible under the various management schemes now being proposed to operate such trains with single person crews. Further, because Train 32N carried the standard crew of two or more workers, they were able to immediately take the necessary emergency measures to ensure a safe and effective response.
The short-term profit imperative, the so-called “cult of the Operating Ratio” – of NS and the other Class 1 railroads – has made cutting costs, employees, procedures, and resources the top priority. In this case, NS and the other carriers have eliminated many of the critical mechanical positions and locations necessary to guarantee protection against these kinds of failures. Simultaneously, they regularly petition the regulators at the Federal Railway Administration for relief from historically required maintenance and inspections.
The wreck of Train 32N has been years in the making. What other such train wrecks await us remains to be seen. But given the modus operandi of the Class One rail carriers, we can no doubt expect future disasters of this nature.