U.S. and World Politics

East Palestine Train Derailment

By Brian Schwartz

It has been over two months since February 3, 2023, when Norfolk Southern Train #32n, pulling 149 train cars derailed, leaving the Ohio town of East Palestine contending with short and long-term chemical contamination that made people sick and killed off marine life in the surrounding water ways near the derailment site. United States railroads have again, willfully sacrificed the safety and wellbeing of citizens who live along their right of ways. Rail union members have borne the brunt of carrier assaults on work rules and arbitrary firings for wanting to do their job safely. The drive for tremendous profits in the 21st century, enabled by a lack of government oversight with teeth, have allowed American railroads to put us and our environment in grave danger.

Jennifer Homendy, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chair, promised to hold a rare field investigative hearing in East Palestine this coming spring explaining, “Number 1: Inform the Public. Number 2: Collect factual information from witnesses. Number 3: Discuss possible solutions. Number 4: Build consensus for change.” The NTSB is only an investigative agency and has no power to impose fines, press charges, or shut down unsafe operations. The Federal Railway Administration (FRA) oversees rules enforcement, levying fines, and overseeing operations procedures with surprise periodic inspections on United States rail systems. The FRA does not dictate train size or labor relations.

Homendy will make the Norfolk-Southern sweat uncomfortably under the lights, but without enforcement power, nothing will really change until the railway unions break with the Democratic Party and align themselves with the American people who need the power of organized labor to begin a serious drive to nationalize the U.S. railroads that will always sacrifice safety for profit. Relying on the Democrats for contract relief was a colossal failure again when President Biden sided with the railroad carriers and refused to grant sick days to railroad workers.

John Nichols, writing for The Nation magazine, February 23, 2023, poses the question that is gaining a hearing with rail labor. In Nichol’s article “It Is Time to Talk About Nationalizing America’s Railroads,” quoting Ross Grooters, a railroad locomotive engineer who co-chairs Railroad Workers United, an inter-union solidarity caucus of rank-and-file railroad workers had this to say:

“Railroads are systematically destroying the freight rail system. We need public ownership of this critical infrastructure to correct railroad problems—just like all other U.S. transportation infrastructure and other rail systems around the world.”

February 23, reporting on behalf of the NTSB, Chair Jennifer Homendy, summarized to the press what the NTSB knows so far about the East Palestine derailment:

“The derailment occurred at car #23, a hopper car carrying plastic pellets in the 149-car train. Norfolk Southern Train #32n was pulled by three locomotives crewed by an engineer, conductor, and trainee. Two of the locomotives were on the head end. The third locomotive was between cars #109 and #110.”

“The 32 nasty”

In the rail industry engines are called “power” the third locomotive on train #32n between cars 109 and 110 is linked by radio/computer to the lead locomotive. It is called “distributive power” enabling trains to pull more cars, relieving stress on couplers and drawbars and other jostling effects that could cause derailments. Even with distributed power, Norfolk Southern train #32n was nicknamed the “32 nasty” by Norfolk Southern Employees connected with operations and inspections of that train which derailed in East Palestine.

It was the combination of the hot axle which started the initial fire. Now the train passed three wayside detectors which identify overheated bearings and provide an audible warning to train crews. At each detector the temperature of the bearing increased. The first detector recorded the bearing at 38 degrees above ambient temperature—ambient temperature is the actual outdoor temperature that the train is passing through. The ambient temperature was ten degrees Fahrenheit. Ten miles later, at the second detector, the temperature measured 103 degrees above ambient temperature. Both those temperatures are considered by Norfolk Southern to be non-critical. The critical threshold per Norfolk-Southern is above 200 degrees ambient. Upon passing the third detector an audible alarm sounded from the detector to slow the train and bring it to a stop. The hot axel on car 23 measured 253 degrees above ambient temperature. What screams out “wrong” is the rail carrier determines what a critical bearing temperature is before the crew can stop the train and inspect.

Car 23 derailed and the train initiated an emergency stop. In total, 38 cars derailed, a fire ensued damaging an additional 12 cars. First responders mitigated the fire. Five cars that were located at placement 26, 27, 28, 29 and 53 contained over 115,000 gallons of vinyl chloride. Those tank cars carrying the vinyl chloride continued to concern authorities because one car’s temperature was 140 degrees. The critical temperature for explosion is 180 degrees Fahrenheit. First responders scheduled a vent and burn for February 5 on the five vinyl chloride cars.

Government investigators fall ill

On March 31, CNN reported that seven U.S. government investigators briefly fell ill in early March while studying the possible health impacts of the East Palestine derailment. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, “…the investigator’s symptoms included sore throats, headaches coughs and nausea—consistent with what some residents in Ohio and across the border experienced after the February 3, train derailment which released a cocktail of hazardous chemicals into the air, water, and soil.”

“It adds confirmation that the symptoms reported by East Palestine residents are real and are associated with environmental exposure from the derailment and chemical fire” said David Michaels, an epidemiologist and professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health and who also ran the Occupational Safety and Health Administration between 2009 and 2017.

On March 31, ABC news reported that the United States Justice Department has filed a lawsuit against Norfolk Southern seeking to hold the railroad company accountable for the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and its toxic aftermath, according to court records.

The filing also seeks to single out the actions of Norfolk Southern’s corporate board noting its executives received approximately 80 percent of their compensation for performance metrics like increasing revenue and reducing expenses of its railroad subsidiaries. As a result, the Department of Justice says that over the past four years there has been “a stark contrast between the increases in operating income and a drop in railroad costs.”

“The drop in operating costs includes reductions in spending to repair, service and maintain locomotives and freight cars, perform train inspections and pay engine crews and train crews” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit goes on to provide further details about the crash itself. At least 11 of the 38 cars involved in the derailment were carrying hazardous materials including: Vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene and benzine residue. Five additional cars were carrying oil.

Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR)

PSR, a brainchild of the late E. Hunter Harrison, has come under the scrutiny of journalists in the wake of the East Palestine derailment. E. Hunter Harrison promised that this revolutionary business model would make railroads operate with fewer workers and equipment while delivering better service to shippers with increased profits to railroad stake holders. Ultimately, this lean PSR method of railroading would pass on cost savings to the shippers themselves once the railways got themselves really on track with this business model.

E. Hunter Harrison passed away while CEO of CSX Railroad. In his biography introducing Harrison to the CSX family, the editors laid out these impressive stats for increased profits at Canadian National, 321 percent and Canadian Pacific, 358 percent. Employees on those lines nicknamed him the “Ugly American.” Hunter was named “Railroader of The Year” twice by railroad corporate friendly journalists and Harrison’s peers in the rail industry.

Before CSX stakeholders could go on their mega profit fueled, Howard Benders—urinating in jars, wearing Kleenex boxes on their feet and letting their hair grow long and hygiene go to hell—E. Hunter Harrison succumbed to emphysema at age 72 and was called home by the Lord to take his seat amongst the robber baron greats—James J. Hill, William K. Vanderbilt, and Jay Gould.

Railway labor and U.S. shippers have been united condemning the “Precision Schedule Railroading” model, though it has delivered a bonanza of short-term profit to the delight of Wall Street. It has been at the expense of gutting the rail labor work force and failing to provide timely, friendly service to the shippers. Hunter’s obituary on the Railway Age website, talks about his rudeness with shippers and how Harrison’s underlings would have to put him in the cage (ha ha).

The obituary made no bones about his “frosty relations” with organized labor. Truly an understatement. What Hunter Harrison did was single-handedly create an army of trainmasters, terminal managers, and superintendents who we call “exempts,” since they are company officers not members of any unions. These exempts pulled union members of all crafts out of service on flimsy charges; they laid off carmen who are essential to maintaining rail car integrity, preventing incidents like the East Palestine tragedy.

Those that remained worked in a climate of intimidation and uncertainty as to whether they would have a job at the end of their tour of duty. The rail union bureaucracies begged for injunctive relief and were too afraid to call on the membership to hit the bricks and shut down the railroads. As the economy regained steam after the COVID pandemic, many railroaders have quit for better jobs.

It is aggravating to work 24/7 on call when “exempts” are stalking you from hideouts or just in plain view, using cameras, and even drones. Before Precision Scheduled Railroading we worked our jobs in relative peace and good faith. We even had fun. Railroads like the BNSF didn’t want to have anything to do with Precision Scheduled Railroading, but they took E. Hunter Harrison’s quest to kick apart union work rules, creating a climate of intimidation with excessive “safety” rules which weren’t really geared to safety but made it easier for the exempts to pull train crews from service, cowing union labor into a compliant work force.

On July 26, 2019, railroad customers and their trade associations complained to congress during a shipper’s roundtable hosted by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials. “A combination of poor service and rising costs over the last few years is not only unacceptable—it falls under the category of unimaginable.” Says Mike Amick, a senior vice president at International Paper, the largest user of box cars. Amick continues, “International Paper car might be delivered on time to the local serving yard but reduced local service means delivery to the company’s mills is often delayed.

“They may claim that PSR improves service but our experience and that of many other shippers, has been the opposite.” Says Emily Regis, fuels resource administrator for the Arizona Electric Power Cooperative.

Harassment of workers

On February 22, 2023, Brotherhood of Railway Carmen Assistant General President, Carl Lakin, met with Federal Railroad Administration administrator, Bose, in East Palestine. The main concerns addressed were decreased manpower, forced overtime, lack of rest. Retaliation for reporting maintenance concerns was also highly discussed. Every rail craft in attendance commented on the industry’s harassment of its workers.

Assistant General President, Lakin, outlined the continued need for visual inspections. The one-minute-per-car inspection, standard under Precision Scheduled Railroading for over 200 inspection points per car was also brought up. A carman can barely walk around a car in one minute, let alone inspect one. Brother Lakin also commented on the reduced work force on Norfolk Southern by 40 percent with mandatory overtime to supplement losses.

Residents of East Palestine will attain lawyers for personal compensation. This is a good thing. Our common future protection will be getting railroads out of private hands. It is huge that rail workers are amenable to the idea of nationalizing railroads. The Nation and New Republic magazines are publishing articles about nationalizing railroads.

Nationalizing rail?

Exploring the nationalization option for huge private enterprises sends U.S. reactionaries and businesspeople into convulsions. The reactionaries crow about the efficiencies and self-corrections of the free market. They call us forward-thinking folks “socialist wackos” and “libtards.” Really though, isn’t it the reactionaries and free market gurus that are the ones who are hanging onto crackpot ideas?

In a revolutionary socialist journal, we like to conclude our articles on an optimistic note—the solution lies in the workers taking power and abolishing capitalism. So it is with railroads, the solution lays with workers’ control of railroads. I would like to end this article with a tell-all conversation exposing the utopian delusion of railroading for profit.

A March 22, 2023, Trains Magazine article entitled, “UP” poses the use of embargoes to regulate traffic. (Embargoes are imposed on shippers when railroads can’t handle their traffic or if the shipper hasn’t paid for the car’s delivery or transport. UP stands for Union Pacific Railroad.) Surface Transportation Board Chairman Martin J. Oberman and UP CEO Lance Fritz corresponded about UPs excessive use of embargoes.

Oberman sought to link UPs job cuts under Precision Scheduled Railroading to the railroad’s service problems. Oberman noted the embargoes increased as the number of train and engine employees fell from more than 18,000 in 2017 to 13,173 currently. “As I see it, there’s a direct relationship between the reduction of employees and increase in embargoes even as operating inventory is going down” Oberman said.

UP CEO Lance Fritz responded: “UP has fewer employees because of operational changes under Precision Scheduled Railroading, including moving its tonnage on far fewer trains.” Fritz said: “The average daily train count in 2018 was up to 900. Fritz said, compared to between 600 and 650 today, so the railroad doesn’t need as many people.”

CEO Lance Fritz is flipping us the bird along with all the other railroad CEOs. The truth is plain to see that Precision Schedule Railroading is detrimental to the wellbeing of this capitalist economy and that the railroads will stick with this inefficient dangerous model. Leaving railroads in the hands of these people, willfully practicing a business model that doesn’t work, is an exercise in madness. Nationalization is a reasoned solution to head off the coming disasters due to derailments of obscenely long trains and to restore railroads to their maximum potential to serve the shipper and allow a capable U.S. rail work force to do their jobs with adequate pay and rest—in a workplace free from rabid intimidation—with an abiding respect from the American people for the 24/7 work schedule railroaders labor under—missing holidays, family events and other social activities.