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The Ohio Derailment Catastrophe Is a Case Study in Disaster Capitalism

By Mel Bauer - The Nation, February 15, 2023

As public outrage has grown over the toxic fallout from last month’s fiery derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train in East Palestine, Ohio, the urgent questions behind this disaster echo the past year’s confrontations over working conditions in the lightly regulated rail industry.

Indeed, the catastrophe in Ohio—together with another hazardous derailment in Houston, Tex., just a week later—drives home the steep costs in health and well-being that we all incur when we fail to heed rail workers’ calls for more regulation and adequate staffing mandates. 

As rail workers sought to win basic guarantees of staffing support and sick leave from rail carriers long accustomed to selling labor short and winning major regulatory concessions from federal agencies, they stressed how the unsustainable demands placed on their working lives would result in disasters just like the one in East Palestine. The northeast Ohio village of about 5,000 people is 40 miles northwest of Pittsburgh and 20 miles south of Youngstown; already those metropolitan areas are under alert for the air and water contamination originating from the Palestine derailment. And in Palestine proper, many residents are already reporting troubling health symptoms and dying area wildlife as they weigh the risks of remaining exposed to the toxic fumes and chemical leaks from the derailed tanker cars carrying hazardous materials.

In the immediate aftermath of the derailment, rail officials ordered that the vinyl chloride hauled by five of the Norfolk Southern cars in the 150-car train be burned off to prevent a still greater explosion—but that action sent hydrogen chloride and phosgene, two dangerous gasses, spuming into the air. EPA investigators have since identified other hazardous chemicals the train had been hauling, including ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene, and butyl acrylate. And the EPA has released a report saying that chemicals from the derailment have leached into the soil and water in the aftermath of the accident.

Progressives Demand Buttigieg Act on Rail Safety Amid Toxic Ohio Disaster

By Kenny Stancil - Common Dreams, February 14, 2023

The transportation secretary's refusal to fortify freight train regulations and crack down on Norfolk Southern "only signals to the railroads that this type of incident will be tolerated," said one watchdog.

Progressives are demanding that U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg improve rail safety regulations in response to the unfolding public health disaster in East Palestine, Ohio—the site of a recent fiery train crash and subsequent "controlled release" of toxic fumes that critics say was entirely avoidable.

"The Obama administration attempted to prevent dangerous derailments like the one in East Palestine by mandating better brake systems on freight trains," Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, said Tuesday in a statement. "But this effort was watered down thanks to corporate pressure, first by writing in many exemptions to the proposed rules and then, under [former President Donald] Trump, by repealing the requirement altogether."

Recent reporting from The Lever revealed that Buttigieg's Department of Transportation (DOT) "has no intention of reinstating or strengthening the brake rule rescinded under Trump," said Hauser. "Additionally, The Leverreports that the train was not being regulated as a high-hazard flammable train, despite it clearly being both high-hazard and flammable. These types of failures to protect the public are invited by perpetual lax enforcement and laziness toward even getting back to the too-low regulatory standards under Obama."

"Now, all eyes are on Secretary Buttigieg," he continued. "For too long he has been content to continue the legacy of his deregulatory predecessor, Elaine Chao, rather than immediately moving to reverse her legacy upon becoming secretary."

"Norfolk Southern's environmental disaster is the latest in a long string of corporate malfeasance committed right under the secretary's nose," Hauser observed, referring to the company that owns the derailed train. "As I've warned before, corporations do not respect Buttigieg as a regulator."

“There Will Be More Derailments”

By Julia Rock and Rebecca Burns - The Lever, February 10, 2023

Pete Buttigieg’s Transportation Department has not moved to revive an Obama-era safety rule that could help prevent future train accidents and derailments.

In the aftermath of a fiery Ohio train derailment, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg’s department has not moved to reinstate an Obama-era rail safety rule aimed at expanding the use of better braking technology, even though a former federal safety official recently warned Congress that without the better brakes, “there will be more derailments [and] more releases of hazardous materials.”

Instead, transportation regulators have been considering a rail-industry-backed proposal that could weaken existing brake safety rules.

Most of the nation’s freight trains — including the Norfolk Southern train that derailed in Ohio — continue to rely on a Civil War-era braking system. Norfolk Southern belongs to a lobby group that successfully pressed President Donald Trump to repeal a 2015 rule requiring newer, safer electronic braking systems in some trains transporting hazardous materials, The Lever reported Wednesday.

The Department of Transportation's most recent regulatory agenda — which lists all planned, proposed, and final rules — does not include an ECP brake rule.

When asked if the better braking technology would have reduced the severity of the Ohio accident, Steven Ditmeyer, a former senior official at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), said, “Yes.”

Where Do Railroad Workers Go from Here?

By Jay, Marilee Taylor, John Tormey, Matt Parker, and Maximillian Alvarez - In These Times, February 10, 2023

After a three-year saga of stalled contract negotiations between the country’s freight rail carriers and the 12 unions representing over 100,000 railroad workers, ​“pro-union” President Biden and Congress ​“averted” a national rail shutdown by overriding the democratic will of rail workers and forcing a contract down their throats. So, what happens now? 

In December, shortly after the Biden administration and Congress intervened, Working People convened a special all-railroader panel to break down the events of the last week and to discuss where railroad workers and the labor movement go from here.

Panelists include: Jay, a qualified conductor who was licensed to operate locomotives at 19 years old, and who became a qualified train dispatcher before he was 23; Marilee Taylor, who worked on the railroads for over 30 years and retired earlier this year from her post as an engineer for BNSF Railway, but is still an active member of Railroad Workers United; John Tormey, a writer and BMWED-IBT member who works as a track laborer for the commuter rail in Massachusetts; and Matt Parker, a full-time locomotive engineer who’s worked on the railroads for 19 years and also serves part-time as Chairman on the Nevada State Legislative Board of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

'Huge Win': Railway Unions Strike Deal on Sick Leave With Industry Giant CSX

By Bret Wilkins - Common Dreams, February 8, 2023

"Now it's time for the entire rail industry, which made over $26 billion in profits last year, to provide at least seven paid sick days to every rail worker in America," said Sen. Bernie Sanders in response.

After sustained pressure from organized workers and their allies, freight rail giant CSX Transportation agreed Tuesday to provide 5,000 employees in two unions with four days of paid sick leave each year—an industry-first move progressive said should serve as an example for other companies to follow.

The agreement reached between Jacksonville, Florida-based CSX and two unions—the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen (BRC) and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division (BMWED)—will provide four days of fully paid sick leave each year, while allowing union members to take up to three personal leave days annually. Additionally, employees can apply their unused paid sick days to their 401K retirement accounts or take payouts.

"We are extremely proud that BRC is one of the very first unions to reach this type of an agreement," said Don Grissom, president of the BRC—which represents mechanical workers—in a statement. "This agreement is a significant accomplishment and provides a very important benefit for our members working at CSXT. The other carriers should take note and come to the bargaining table in a similar manner."

‘Workers Know the Truth’ About the Derailment Disaster - Why Are They Being Ignored?

By Bob Hennelly - Work-Bites, February 8, 2023

Throughout the recent hazardous chemical freight train derailment in Ohio and the four-day ordeal that followed while the flaming wreck was stabilized, the one perspective that was consistently missing from the reporting was that of the union railroad workers. It didn’t matter if it was the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Associated Press , the reporting relied on interviews with local, state and federal officials as well as statements from the Norfolk Southern, the rail carrier but not the perspective of their union workers.

It was as if robots and AI were already driving the train. The entire narrative of the cataclysm was framed by officials and the corporation whose malfunctioning train was now putting workers and the community in life-threatening jeopardy. The derailment played out in the rural borderland of Ohio and Pennsylvania requiring both states to activate an emergency evacuation response.

On Friday evening, the tranquility of East Palestine, Ohio, with a population of 4,761 people, was upended when a Norfolk Southern train with 150 cars in tow, derailed sparking a conflagration that inundated the area with toxic smoke. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], 20 of the cars in train were carrying hazardous materials. 

The U.S. EPA had to start monitoring the air for carbon monoxide, oxygen hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide, phosgene, and hydrogen chloride. Throughout the weekend, firefighters did their best to keep the disabled tanker cars cool as some of the hazardous cargo burned off. The local fire chief told reporters he was concerned about the presence of vinyl chloride, a colorless, toxic, and flammable gas.

“If you are in this red zone that is on the map and you refuse to evacuate, you are risking death,” Pennsylvania’s Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) warned. “If you are within the orange area on this map, you risk permanent lung damage within a matter of hours or days.”

In initial comments, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB] posited that the derailment of the 150-car train was most likely caused by a problem with one of the axles on one of the freight or tanker cars. The catastrophic derailment, with significant public health and environmental implications, comes a few months after President Biden and Congress imposed a contract on the nation’s rail unions that their rank and file rejected in part because it lacked paid sick days.

Rail Companies Blocked Safety Rules Before Ohio Derailment

By David Sirota, Julia Rock, Rebecca Burns, and Matthew Cunningham-Cook - The Lever, February 8, 2023

Norfolk Southern helped convince government officials to repeal brake rules — and corporate lobbyists watered down hazmat safety regs.

Before this weekend’s fiery Norfolk Southern train derailment prompted emergency evacuations in Ohio, the company helped kill a federal safety rule aimed at upgrading the rail industry’s Civil War-era braking systems, according to documents reviewed by The Lever.

Though the company’s 150-car train in Ohio reportedly burst into 100-foot flames upon derailing — and was transporting materials that triggered a fireball when they were released and incinerated — it was not being regulated as a “high-hazard flammable train,” federal officials told The Lever.

Documents show that when current transportation safety rules were first created, a federal agency sided with industry lobbyists and limited regulations governing the transport of hazardous compounds. The decision effectively exempted many trains hauling dangerous materials — including the one in Ohio — from the “high-hazard” classification and its more stringent safety requirements.

Amid the lobbying blitz against stronger transportation safety regulations, Norfolk Southern paid executives millions and spent billions on stock buybacks — all while the company shed thousands of employees despite warnings that understaffing is intensifying safety risks. Norfolk Southern officials also fought off a shareholder initiative that could have required company executives to “assess, review, and mitigate risks of hazardous material transportation.”

Special Report: Norfolk-Southern Train Derails 50 of 151 Cars in Fiery Crash

By staff - Railroad Workers United, February 7, 2023

As we approach the 10 year anniversary of the deadly train wreck in Lac-Megantic, Quebec on July 5th, 2013, a major fiery train wreck in Ohio this past weekend serves as a reminder of just how potentially dangerous long and heavy trains can be. Add to this the fact that in the last 10 years, the Class One carriers have dramatically increased both the length and tonnage of the average train, while cutting back on maintenance and inspection, and we have a time bomb ticking, just like a decade ago, leading up to the Canadian disaster that destroyed a whole town and took the lives of 47 people. 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.

The train, NS 32N, which was built in Madison, IL and headed east to Conway, PA swapped out crews in Decatur, IL. This crew would experience trouble while running their route between Decatur, IL and Peru, IN. In fact, they did not complete their trip to Peru since they outlawed on the federal hours-of-service statute. The train severed a knuckle between two cars at Attica, IN. This occurred while the train was going downhill and while in dynamic braking. Pretty much the only time a train breaks in this scenario is when the train isn’t blocked properly. In order to mitigate in-train forces, railroads prior to PSR would build trains with the heavier cars on the head end and the lighter cars on the rear end. This prevents severe slack run-ins and run-outs throughout the trip and if the train’s emergency brakes are applied, you don’t have heavier cars running into lighter cars which causes jackknifing. This particular train had 40% of it’s weight on the rear 1/3 of the train. Most of this tonnage was made up of loaded tank cars which are very heavy and slosh back and forth when coming to a sudden stop. This sloshing after a stop can continue the pushing of more cars off a track in a jackknifing situation which is what occurred in this Ohio wreck. This block of tank cars was placed directly behind a block of cars that were in the middle of train which were equipped with cushioned draw bars. The draw bars on these cars slide in and out independent of the car body which helps protect the merchandise carried within from damage. These type of draw bars are usually on automobile carriers to prevent the cars/trucks inside from being damaged. Placing cars with these draw bars in the middle of a train creates elasticity. Building a train like this (Head end = locomotives, which are the heaviest part of any train, followed by heavy mixed freight loads, followed by a block of cushioned draw bar cars, followed by a block of heavy tank cars (such as the case with this 32N) is akin to placing two bowling balls on the ends of a rubber band and praying the rubber band doesn’t break. 

Video footage has emerged online showing one of the wheels on this train on fire as it passed by the camera. If this footage is authentic, it’s very likely that car caused the derailment. This damaged car apparently was allowed to leave its initial terminal because it wasn’t inspected properly due to car inspectors being laid-off and time allowed per car inspection being dramatically reduced by the industry. If this did indeed occur this way, the train would’ve gone into emergency and the heavy tank cars on the rear end would’ve slammed into the derailed cars causing the 50 cars to pile up off the track and catch fire. 

"Precision Scheduled Railroading" is more than likely a major culprit in this incident for the following reasons:

  • Inspection times have been cut resulting in the defective car remaining in the consist.
  • Train was excessively long and heavy… 151 cars, 9300 feet, 18,000 tons.
  • Train was not blocked properly because PSR calls for limited car dwell times in terminals. Blocking a train for proper train handling (placing the majority of weight on the head end and ahead of cushioned draw bars) takes longer so this practice has been mostly eliminated by the rail carriers. 

Fiery Ohio Train Wreck the Result of "PSR"

By Fritz Edler, et. al - Railroad Workers United, February 7, 2023

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.

Just Transition for Rail

By Chris Saltmarsh - The Ecologist, February 6, 2023

A review of Derailed: How to Fix Britain’s Railways, by Tom Haines-Doran, published by Manchester University Press.

As climate change intensifies, the imperative to shift our transport system away from polluting private cars to public transport – rail in particular – becomes increasingly urgent.

At the same time, amid an inflationary crisis, rail workers are at the forefront of a nationwide wave of strike action defending pay and conditions.

In Derailed: How to Fix Britain’s Broken Railways, Tom Haines-Doran puts the UK’s rail system in these political-economic contexts with a compelling account of its history, present conditions and future possibilities.

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