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As Norfolk Southern Reports Billions in Earnings, East Palestine Residents Wait for Justice

By Christa, Chris Albright, Jessica Albright, Stella Gamble, Daren Gamble, and Maximillian Alvarez - The Real News, January 31, 2024

Public Ownership of Rail Is on the Agenda. Here’s What It Could Look Like

By Alex Press and Maddock Thomas - Jacobin, January 7, 2024

Nearly one year ago, on the night of February 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Videos of the smoke and fire released by the nearly two-mile-long train went viral, and residents in the community reported severe health effects.

The rail disaster triggered an outcry: Why did this happen, and what can any of us do about it? Soon, there were articles detailing the alarming state into which the country’s railroads have fallen: accidents are up, and oversight is hard to come by. Plus, there is a severe squeeze on rail workers, many of whom lack sick days of any kind and are effectively always on call.

Railroad Workers United (RWU), a caucus of rank-and-file workers spanning all thirteen national rail unions, recently released a video offering one answer to the rotten state of US rail. “Putting America Back on Track: The Case for Public Rail Ownership” opens in East Palestine, with a resident of the area showing the viewer photos he took the night of the Norfolk Southern derailment. The video goes on to make the case for public ownership of rail, which has been a focus for RWU over the past year.

As Ross Grooters, RWU cochair and a union locomotive engineer, told Jacobin, the workers came out with the demand amid their ugly contract fight in 2022, which ended with Joe Biden intervening to quash a potential rail strike.

“It became really clear between the contract negotiations and the fact that the railroad companies are making obscene amounts of money operating the railroads purely for the purpose of extracting wealth from what should be critical infrastructure, that the only way for rail to work would be outside the for-profit model that it exists in currently,” said Grooters.

So RWU passed a resolution endorsing the campaign. The case has been articulated by RWU members in several publications, from Jacobin to In These Times to FreightWaves, but with the release of RWU’s film, I wanted to hear more about the models under debate, so I called up Maddock Thomas, who is writing a policy paper on public rail ownership for RWU. We spoke about the current structure of rail ownership, alternative public models, and which country has the most functional rail system. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What Happened with the Rail Deal?

Socialize the Railways!

By Tom Wetzel - East Bay Syndicalists, November 13, 2023

The downward slide of the major (Class 1) American freight railroads in recent years shows how capitalist ownership of the railway system is dangerous and inefficient — and fails to make use of the potential of the railways as a solution to the global warming crisis.

Downward slide has been accelerated over the past decade due to the adoption of “Precision Scheduled Railroading” (PSR). This has no precise definition but the aim is to reduce costs. As in “lean production” management theory, any expense not directly needed for profit is regarded as “waste.” PSR is a cost-cutting strategy that puts short-term profits for stockholders as the controlling priority. To maximize the rate of return, the railroads cut corners on maintenance, constantly work to reduce the number of railroad employees, and actively discourage shipments that are less profitable for them to haul. To keep Wall Street investors happy, they work to maximize short term profit. To enrich stockholders, the rail companies have poured billions of dollars into stock buybacks rather than invest in system improvements.

Rail Privatisation: 30 years of waste and rising fares

By staff - National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), November 5, 2023

As Britain ‘celebrates’ 30 years of rail privatisation, RMT reveals that the three-decade debacle has seen at least £31 billion leak out of the system, mostly into shareholders pockets, while passengers are paying 8% more in real terms to travel on a deteriorating system.

  • Renationalising the railway and creating a single, integrated publicly owned railway company would save around £1.5 billion every year which could be used to cut fares by 18%, helping to encourage more people back onto Britain’s railways.
  • At least £1.5 billion and very likely more leaks out of Britain’s railways every year in the form of profits extracted by train operating companies, rolling stock leasing companies, subcontractors and other costs that arise the fragmentation of the railways.1 Throughout privatisation, the annual outflow of funds would have enabled, on average, a cut of 14% in fares (Table 1.)
  • If the railways were nationalised now and the flow of funds into the private sector was cut off, the money saved would fund a cut of 18% in fares.
  • The cost of travelling by rail is now almost 8% higher in real terms than it was in 1995, before privatisation. This figure has dropped in the last two years only as inflation as risen above 13%. Until the cost-of-living crisis, when fare increases were decoupled from RPI inflation, fares were consistently 15-20% higher in real terms than before privatisation.

Download a copy of this publication here (PDF).

Putting America Back on Track: The Case for Public Rail Ownership

Transportation Webinar: Where is This Train Going? Freight Rail in the Public Interest

From East Palestine, Silicon Valley & Hunters Point, Toxins, Workers & Whistleblowers

(Working Paper #16) Beyond Recovery: The Global Green New Deal and Public Ownership of Energy

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, August 31, 2023

Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, calls for a GGND and a commitment to GPGs intensified. In July 2020, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres declared, “The global political and economic system is not delivering on critical global public goods: public health, climate action, sustainable development, peace…we need a New Global Deal to ensure that power, wealth and opportunities are shared more broadly and fairly at the international level.” 

Authored by TUED Coordinator Sean Sweeney, the paper argues that a GGND of the left must distinguish itself from green “recovery economics.” Many North-based progressives are comfortable talking about the need for “more public investment,” and the need for “ambitious climate action” but many continue to be vague or agnostic on questions of public ownership and control. 

The paper argues that an undiscerning approach to public investment weakens the case for a GGND. It shows how the current emphasis on “de-risking” private investment means that public money is used to make profitable what would not otherwise be profitable. Obama’s stimulus package of 2008, to the more recent Green Deal for Europe, and the Biden Administration’s Inflation Recovery Act that commits $369 billion of public spending to secure long-term revenue streams and profits for mostly private investors and developers. The more recent “Just Energy Transition Partnerships” and the emphasis on “blended finance” are an extension of this approach. 

Taking a deep dive into the roots of neoliberal climate policy, Beyond Recovery shows how a “recovery” narrative has helped both conceal and perpetuate the failures of the current investor-focused approach to energy transition and climate protection. For more than three decades, this approach has shown itself to be ineffective in terms of reducing economy-wide emissions. Sweeney describes the policy as a resilient failure, the extent of which is not always fully grasped. 

Energy: The Means of Production

The paper argues that a left GGND must view public investment as a means to extend public ownership, with energy systems and critical supply chains being a priority target. 

Public ownership of energy gives governments the power to pivot away from the highly commodified “energy for profit” regime. More than any single policy option, control over energy will ensure that governments are better positioned to advance an economy-wide energy transition in ways that can control and then reduce emissions while also addressing joblessness, inequality, and other social problems. It can set the stage for the kind of sweeping interventions in the political economy that are needed to address climate change, confront the political power of fossil fuel interests, and intercept the dynamics of “endless growth” capitalism. 

Download a copy of this publication here (PDF).

OSHA fines Norfolk Southern for worker safety violations at East Palestine chemical cleanup

By Reid Frazier - Allegheny Front, August 9, 2023

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is fining Norfolk Southern nearly $50,000 for workplace safety violations during the chemical cleanup at the site of its East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment. As part of a settlement, the company will also have to monitor any medical issues of workers brought in to clear and rebuild the tracks at the site. 

Those workers had previously reported health problems similar to those experienced by nearby residents after the February 3 derailment, which included 11 cars containing hazardous chemicals. 

After a five-month investigation, OSHA cited the company for failing to inform workers about which hazardous chemicals spilled at the site. The agency also found the company didn’t create a decontamination zone at the site, or ensure they wore appropriate chemical-resistant footwear. 

The violations also included allowing an employee without proper respiratory protection to pour cement on potentially contaminated soil, and not developing an emergency response plan that included clear lines of authority, communication and training, and site security.

“This agreement will improve the safety and health controls in place for Norfolk Southern employees who responded and help educate the rail operator’s employees on the lessons learned so they are prepared should another emergency occur,” said OSHA Cleveland area office director Howard Eberts in a statement.

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