Union: Norfolk Southern drops rail freight conductor elimination plan
Leo, Andrea Belden’s pet cat, died following liver issues due to vinyl chloride gas exposure. Other pets, along with thousands of wild birds and aquatic animals died in East Palestine, adding to mounting pressure on a railroad that has been resistant to change. | The Wildest

WASHINGTON —Beset by heavy criticism from rail unions, safety advocates, Railroad Workers United, and lawmakers, Norfolk Southern Railroad has apparently dropped its plan to eliminate the conductor from all its freight trains, leaving only the engineer.

But it’s still leaving the option open for further talks with the Smart Union’s Transportation Division on what NS calls “conductor redeployment,” warns Smart-TD President Jeremy Ferguson, who issued the joint announcement with the big Class I freight railroad.

The March 30 Norfolk Southern-Smart-TD statement comes almost two months after the Feb. 3 wreck of NS32. Some 38 cars in the 150-car freight, including cars with hazardous chemicals, derailed in East Palestine, Ohio.

The wreck and derailment, combined with leaks and fumes of toxic chemicals from the cars, devastated the 4,700-person Ohio town and nearby western Pennsylvania. Residents were temporarily evacuated, at least 3,500 fish died from chemicals leaking into the town’s river—which later empties into the Ohio River—and pets died.

Some 39 Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees/Teamsters deployed to clean up the mess already complain of nausea and migraine headaches. Getting a turndown from NS bosses, they took their woes to their union, which in turn raised hell with Gov. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, demanding he both help the workers and campaign for tighter rail regulation to prevent future toxic crashes.

Unions, lawmakers, the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department, and the rank-and-file group Railroad Workers United all have lobbied for years to keep two-person crews on all freights as a safety measure. Catering to their Wall Street financial backers and the corporate class, the Class I freight railroads—including Norfolk Southern—demand the virtual elimination of conductors, and other workers, to save money.

NS32 actually had an engineer, a conductor, and a trainee, and they were able to detach its locomotives to prevent even more carnage and damage. But Norfolk Southern, like other big Class I freight railroads, has been campaigning for one-person crews—the engineer—on freight trains.

“Withdrawing the bargaining notice on conductor redeployment removes the mandatory requirement for the parties to bargain over the issue, though voluntary discussions remain an option,” Norfolk Southern said in its separate statement.

“Over the next year, Smart-TD and Norfolk Southern have the opportunity to work together to implement important predictability improvements for our conductor workforce,” Ferguson said in a joint press release with NS.

“These scheduling enhancements, part of last year’s national agreements, have the potential to make an immediate positive impact for our conductors by giving them fixed days off and greater certainty about their weekly assignments.”

NS wanted to reassign conductors to ground bases, such as yard towers, away from the actual trains. It dropped that idea, Ferguson said. He called that “a welcome show of good faith.”

That “good faith” came days after NS President Alan Shaw, under tough questioning from Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who has made transportation safety a key cause during his career, demanded Shaw endorse two-person freight rail crews as a safety measure. Shaw refused.

“That is not what the people of East Palestine, or the American people, want to hear,” deadpanned Railroad Workers United, the rank-and-file coalition of workers from all 14 rail crafts.

RWU has campaigned for years for an absolute federal rule mandating two-person crews. So has the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department, including the rail unions.

“We are committed to working with Congress on additional safety reforms. It’s shameful that rail industry lobbyists are still prioritizing profits over people by opposing commonsense measures like two-person crew requirements,” said Transportation Trades Department President Greg Regan.

TTD endorsed a bipartisan measure, sponsored by Ohio and Pennsylvania lawmakers, the RAIL Act. It includes the two-worker crew mandate. The lawmakers “are actively trying to make the American rail system safer,” Regan said.

The Biden Administration’s Transportation Department proposed a “final rule” with that mandate—and some limited exceptions—last September. The Biden White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs—which past administrations used to bottle up pro-consumer rules—has stalled it until at least Feb. 2024, the Federal Register shows.

That prompted RWU to launch an online petition to get the mandate permanently put in place. It’s headlined “Protect Communities from Corporate Railroad Greed!”

“Chemical lobbyists got Obama officials to exempt trains like the one in Ohio from hazmat safety rules,” it says in part. “Rail lobbyists got Trump officials to repeal rules requiring better brakes on trains.” The brakes failed, due to high heat which broke an axle on one NS32 freight car, derailing it and it took the rest off the track at East Palestine.

RWU “warned these safety issues were a ‘ticking time bomb’—and now the people of East Palestine are paying the price.

“The Biden administration can do something—RIGHT NOW. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg can stand up to rail lobbyists and enact the safety rules corporate lobbyists previously blocked to better protect us from trains carrying toxic chemicals through our towns and cities.

Instead, Buttigieg is moving in the other direction, to weaken train safety, RWU’s petition adds, without giving details. “This is totally unacceptable.”

Some 53,400 people have signed the petition. The goal is 102,000 signatures.

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Press Associates
Press Associates

Press Associates Inc. (PAI), is a union news service in Washington D.C. Mark Gruenberg is the editor.