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LNS Supports Railroad Workers United’s Demand to Nationalize the Railroads

By staff - Labor Network for Sustainability, March 31, 2023

There is a through-line between the denial of sick days to railroad workers and residents of East Palestine fleeing their homes in the aftermath of a derailed freight train poisoning their town. The through-line is the rail industry’s drive for profit costing workers and communities their health and safety. The through-line is workers sounding the alarm, to no avail.

For decades, the railroad industry has been increasing profits by raising prices and cutting labor costs, resulting in degraded safety standards and short-staffing. This, and the pursuit of short-term profit, are at the heart of why 45,000 rail workers have lost their jobs since 2015, why rail industry lobbyists have spent millions to undermine safety regulations, why the industry has delayed the electrification of railroads, and why a “100% preventable” rail disaster in East Palestine has caused residents to flee, animals to die, and at least 1.1 million gallons of water and 15,000 pounds of soil to become contaminated. To those who own the railroads, all of this has been a great success: CEOs at five of the largest railroad conglomerates have made $200 million over the last 3 years. After all, the point of private industry is profit.

Private interests must be prevented from dictating the future of rail– critical infrastructure that serves as a backbone for the economy, communities, and a climate-safe future. To that end, the Labor Network for Sustainability supports Railroad Workers United’s demand to nationalize the railroads.

Alongside necessary public investments, public ownership of rail will allow us to transform our rail system into one that truly serves the common good. Untethered from the market, we can electrify and expand rail, institute fairer working conditions, and engage communities throughout the process so that equity, sustainability, and justice are at the forefront.

The latest Synthesis Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) clearly stated that the choices we make in the next decade will impact us now and for the next thousand years. Now is the time for bold decisions. Without public and democratic ownership of rail, many of those crucial decisions will not be made by us– they will be made by a wealthy few.

To our partners and allies who value democracy, workers rights, and climate justice– join us in demanding that rail becomes a public good!

What If WE Owned The Tracks?

By Jason Clifford - CleanTechnica, March 22, 2023

When it comes to energy efficient transportation in America, no transportation option is better than the railroads. They have been the freight transportation backbone of America for nearly 200 years, which is why all the recent news about train derailments and union strikes deserves our attention. While more profitable then they have ever been for investors, the railroads are moving less freight and employing fewer workers now then they did in 2006. After underinvesting in their labor force, rolling stock, and tracks for decades, are America’s railroads entering a state of decline, and if so, should we start discussing the pitfalls and possibilities of public rail ownership?

A Brief History Of Railroads & Railroad Ownership In The US

For some context, it will be good to have a brief history lesson. Starting with the birth of America in the late 1700s and early 1800s, bulk goods were moved by waterways, as the only other option was horse-drawn carriage. In the early days of the country, cities were built around the navigable waterways to transfer goods and services. However, as the nation grew westward, it was harder and took longer to ship goods and services by waterway. Baltimore, wanting to retain its importance as a major shipping port, looked to Europe’s emerging train technology as an opportunity to more quickly deliver goods and people to inland areas of the country. Hence, starting in 1828, the Baltimore and Ohio railroad was built as the first major railroad in the US. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad company was founded to build the tracks and run the trains, with significant investments from the State of Maryland and other private investors.

Beginning in the 1830s and 1840s, railroads were built across the young nation, bringing people westward, reducing travel times and shipping costs. Investors like Cornelius Vanderbilt, with money from their waterway shipping enterprises, started investing in the railroads and profiting from the new technology frontier.

The United States government, wanting to rapidly expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific, was not satisfied with the gradual growth of the railroads. Conversely, private investors were not interested in investing a large amount of money to build track in sparsely populated areas that may not give them a return for decades. Considering these factors Congress passes and President Abraham Lincoln signs the 1862 Pacific Rail Act which grants the railroad companies land and government bonds to build the tracks. In total, the legislation created four transcontinental railroads and gave away 174 million acres of public lands to rail companies. Union Pacific was founded during this time and took advantage of the legislation to build out the railroads and establish itself as a dominant player in the western United States.

Hence, the railroad companies have always been a private enterprise but with serious public backing from the state and federal governments.

Corporate Greed Is a Root Cause of Rail Disasters Around the World

By Justin Mikulka - DeSmog, March 21, 2023

On February 25, Greece experienced its deadliest rail disaster ever when a freight train ran headlong into a passenger train coming towards it on the same track, killing 57 people. This tragic accident, near the city of Larissa, occurred just weeks after the East Palestine, Ohio rail disaster, and while the outcomes are different, the root cause is the same: corporate greed and deregulation. 

While two trains colliding on the same tracks might seem unfathomable to Americans, it shouldn’t be. A similar accident occurred in Texas in 2016, a year after the U.S. rail industry refused to meet a Congressionally mandated deadline for installing a safety system called positive train control, which would have prevented the accident.

Threatened with a rail shutdown, Congress buckled and gave the industry an extra three years to install the safety system, with the option for an extension until the end of 2020. On December 29, 2020, the Federal Railroad Administration announced that positive train control was finally installed on all of the required rail lines. 

As DeSmog has reported, the U.S. rail industry has lobbied against the requirement to install positive train control since 1970. In fact, one rail lobbyist received an award for being “part of a successful push for a congressional agreement to extend a deadline for automated trains on most of the nation’s railways.” The National Transportation Safety Board first recommended positive train control in 1970 after two Penn Central commuter trains collided head-on near Darien, Connecticut, the previous year. Four people were killed and 43 were injured.

Off the Rails: Chemicals, Communities, and ‘Bomb Trains’

Rank-and-File Railworkers Are Calling for Public Ownership of the Railroads

By Ross Grooters and Nick French - Jacobin, March 15, 2023

Fed up with rail companies putting profits before workers and surrounding communities, the rank-and-file group Railroad Workers United is launching a campaign for railroad nationalization. We spoke with one of their leaders about the proposal.

Just months after a high-profile contract fight between rail unions and railroads ended with Congress imposing a contract on workers, a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The environmental and health disaster — exacerbated by the federal government’s lackadaisical response — has laid bare the safety practices of rail carriers.

Railroad Workers United (RWU), a caucus of rank-and-file workers spanning all thirteen national rail unions, has responded to the East Palestine derailment by calling for public ownership of the railroads. According to RWU, the railways cannot be run safely or efficiently so long as they are operated in the pursuit of profit at all costs.

Jacobin spoke with one of the cochairs of RWU, Ross Grooters, about why the group is pushing for railroad nationalization and their efforts to organize with other workers along the supply chain.

How Corporate Greed Destroyed East Palestine

Rail Updates: New Legislation & Company Corruption

We Went to East Palestine: What We Saw May Shock You

Norfolk Southern's 'Safety Plan' Includes Automation That Could Further Endanger Workers

By Julia Conley - Common Dreams, March 8, 2023

"You can't just replace the manpower with a machine when it's not always as effective," said one railroad worker.

With railroad operator Norfolk Southern involved in numerous significant train derailments and other accidents in recent weeks, the company on Monday unveiled a "six-point safety plan" that officials claimed would "immediately enhance the safety of its operations."

But critics including rail workers were quick to point out that one aspect of the plan could worsen the growing problem of reduced railroad crews, which they say has contributed to dangerous conditions on railroads.

The plan calls for a number of improvements to Norfolk Southern's systems to detect overheated wheel bearings, which the National Transportation Safety Board said in a preliminary report appeared to be the cause of the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio on February 3.

In addition, Norfolk Southern said it aims to accelerate its "digital train inspection program" by partnering with Georgia Tech Research Institute to develop new safety inspection technology the company claims could "identify defects and needed repairs much more effectively than traditional human inspection."

The technology would use "machine vision and algorithms powered by artificial intelligence," the plan reads—offering what journalist Sam Sacks said is likely a thinly veiled proposal for "further reductions" in the company's workforce.

US Railroads Lag Behind the World in Railroad Electrification, and the Reason is Private Ownership

By Maddock Thomas - Brown Political Review, March 7, 2023

Railroads in the United States have avoided electrification, lagging behind much of the rest of the world. Consequently, American railroads are some of the largest consumers of diesel. In 2018, they used 4.2 billion gallons of diesel, second only to the US military. This diesel becomes quite expensive when prices spike during fuel crises. While railroads often claim to be improving fuel efficiency, they have failed to invest in the obvious solution: electrification. Railroad electrification would massively reduce pollution, improve operating efficiency, lower costs, and clear the way for faster rail service. With all these benefits, why have American railroads failed to electrify? The answer has to do with monopolization, a short-sighted focus on profit, and lack of national planning. However, it is not too late to correct our failures now. The US can still create a world-class, electrified rail network by nationalizing railroad infrastructure and recognizing it as a public good.

The US rail network is privately owned, largely by two sets of regional duopolies: CSX and Norfolk Southern in the east, and BNSF and Union Pacific in the west. These companies are fastidiously opposed to deploying capital that would improve infrastructure. As a result, they are unwilling to fund electrification and focus on cutting costs and services in order to reap higher profits. 

This refusal to invest in better rail infrastructure in pursuit of short-term profits is short-sighted at best and downright counterproductive at worst. The operating cost of electrified railways is markedly lower than that of those that run on diesel. A study from the 1980s found that electrification had an “economic advantage” over diesel, with a 19 percent pre-tax rate of return on electrifying 29,000 miles of US mainlines. Additionally, it is more than 50 percent cheaper to power a train on electricity than on diesel, especially considering current price hikes. Plus, with regenerative braking and catenaries, when trains are going downhill or slowing, they can sell power back to the grid.

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