Safety Board to probe Norfolk Southern, not just individual crashes
Multiple cars of a Norfolk Southern cargo train lie toppled on one another after derailing at a train crossing with Ohio 41 in Clark County, Ohio, Saturday, March 4, 2023. | Bill Lackey/Springfield-News Sun via AP

WASHINGTON—In an unprecedented decision, the National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the entire “safety culture” at Norfolk Southern Railroad, not just the individual NS crashes that landed it in hot water, notably the Feb. 3 massive and dangerous freight car derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. It was the first of two wrecks that month and the fourth—two fatal—since Dec. 13.

The need for such a probe, announced on March 7 by Board Chair Jennifer Homendy, was intensified by other developments following that big crash. One was a little-noticed revelation buried at the end of a March 9 Senate testimony by railroad President Alan Shaw.

“It is important we leverage Norfolk Southern’s data, as well as data from industry partners, to reevaluate alarm threshold temperatures for bearing heat sensors,” Shaw explained to the Environment and Public Works Committee. The sensors alert NS crews, through an engine siren, when bearings exceed 200 degrees hotter than the surrounding temperature.

The bearing reached 253 degrees hotter than the surrounding 10-degree-above-zero air at East Palestine, so the crew threw on the brakes. By then, it was too late. The bearing caught fire, the wheel and axle broke and the car jumped the tracks, taking others with it. Almost a dozen carried hazardous materials.

Trigger an alarm

“Norfolk Southern’s wayside detectors trigger an alarm at a temperature threshold that is among the lowest in the rail industry,” Shaw said. In so many words, Shaw said that “if we’re bad”—and they are—“everybody else is worse” among the nation’s six other big Class I freight railroads.

A second development reinforced the widespread revelation that NS and the other freight firms put profits before people, just as senators alleged, Railroad Workers United (RWU) has documented and the public had realized even before the East Palestine crash.

Three rail unions—the Smart-Maintenance Division, Machinists District 19, and the Electrical Workers (IBEW)—sued another big freight railroad, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Mo., for lax inspections and maintenance of its engines.

That lawsuit says under the contracts between BNSF and the three unions since 1964, only qualified unionized engine maintenance workers can inspect, and approve, the use of the engines. The inspections are performed twice a year, six months apart. If an engine fails even one component of an inspection, it must go back to the shop for repairs, again by a trained, unionized professional, then retested.

There are a few limited exceptions to that rule, and railroads must gain federal waivers for those cases.

But, like other railroads in their drive to save money by cutting people and costs, BNSF has been contracting out the engine inspections, the suit says. Meanwhile, starting in 2020, BNSF furloughed some 400 maintenance workers: 277 IBEW electricians, 50 Smart members, and 96 Machinists. Few have been hired back.

At the Senate hearing, the only people who concentrated on speaking for hurting  East Palestine residents, and those of nearby Pennsylvania, were Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Bob Casey, D-Pa., committee chair Tom Carper, D-Del., and top Republican Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.

Ohio’s other senator, rabid right-wing Republican J.D. Vance, briefly discussed aiding the people of East Palestine before blasting railroad lobbyists for weakening safety rules—conveniently not mentioning they did so under Republican Oval Office occupant Donald Trump.

Then Vance turned the crash into a political cause. He attacked Democratic President Joe Biden, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and EPA Administrator Michael Regan for not showing up quickly enough at East Palestine, deploying Trumpite white resentment as his weapon.

“The residents of East Palestine are not the type of people who elicit the sympathy of the bicoastal elite,” said Vance, who owes his seat to a multibillionaire’s political dollars and Trump’s endorsement.

“They’re too white, too rural, and too conservative. Those sympathies now seem to be reserved for Ukrainians, extreme sexual minorities, and criminals. Their affection extends to everyone except Americans in our own heartland.”

Vance was right, though, in one respect.

No residents testified

No residents of the 5,000-person town testified. No rail workers–who told their union, the Teamsters, that cleaning up the mess gives them nausea and migraine headaches—testified (see earlier story). No local farmers worried their soil is too contaminated by the chemicals the Feb. 3 wreck let loose testified. And no people whose pets succumbed to illnesses from the fumes or the poisoned water testified.

Only county, state, and federal officials, plus Shaw, testified about the automated alarms—and lack of them—that triggered the disastrous wreck of the 150-car train just short of the Ohio-Pennsylvania line and 13 miles north of the Ohio River, the state’s boundary with West Virginia.

All this led RWU, the rank-and-file organization that cuts across freight railroads’ 14 craft unions, to propose yet another rail safety measure of its own, limiting trains’ length and weight. Meanwhile, RWU blasted the “voluntary” program the Association of American Railroads—the freight rail lobby—adopted. The lobby also urged lawmakers not to rush to judgment until all the evidence is in about the causes of the wreck.

Citing, RWU noted the big freight railroads spent $39.4 million lobbying lawmakers and the two administrations since 2015, the year it adopted measures to boost profits to satisfy Wall Street and $23 million on “feel good” ads from 2015-19.

What it didn’t do was fix safety and shorten trains—such as the two-mile NS freight that crashed in East Palestine. And Scripps-Howard News Service, using required corporate data, reported lavish bonuses for NS executives during the same era the railroad told federal securities regulators it boosted profits “by running fewer, heavier trains,” RWU added.

RWU proposed the federal government force all the freights to stop that practice and shorten trains.

“The railroads have shown zero regard for public safety or inconvenience at crossings while conducting unregulated experiments on our communities by running trains of essentially unlimited length,” RWU said. So RWU “demands railroad safety regulators act immediately to set temporary maximum safe train lengths, that account for dangerous slack events occurring during a derailment, as well as significantly reduce such incidents.” It also wants the feds to then make shorter train lengths permanent.

Eddie Hall, the new president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen/Teamsters, chimed in on the same theme.

“None of the major railroads have agreed to paid sick leave for the engineers and conductors who operate freight trains. One would think that having healthy and well-rested crews would be important for healthy railroads and public safety,” Hall said in a statement.

Hall won his post by ousting his predecessor in a one-railroader-one-vote after showing colleagues that union president was too willing to agree to the freight railroads’ contract demands.

“Not only is there no mention of paid sick leave in the AAR announcement, but there is also barely a mention of human beings. Certainly not a mention of two-person crews being mandated to operate trains. Not a mention of working with railroad unions to improve workplace safety,” said Hall.

“AAR’s announcement is very telling. Through their sins of omission, the railroads’ lobbyists are telling us loud and clear the industry disregards the people who work on the rails and that this industry should not be allowed to self-regulate.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.