After the East Palestine train derailment, are railroads any safer?
More than five months after the disastrous train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan H. Shaw has doubled down on the rail company's response while also promising to become the "gold standard" of safety for the freight industry.
Yet union officials and railroad workers remain skeptical about the direction the industry is heading and whether their concerns will be heard.
In a recent interview with All Things Considered's Scott Detrow, Shaw highlighted changes that Norfolk Southern had made to improve safety and prevent future disasters, including appointing a group with experience in the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program as an independent safety consultant, and implementing a six-point safety plan.
"We know that the Navy nuclear program is the gold standard of safety," Shaw said. "And we will be the gold standard of safety in the rail industry."
There were 286 reported derailments involving class I railroads in 2022 on a mainline track, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, which does not include incidents in rail yards or other work areas.
"Last year, Norfolk Southern's number of derailments was the lowest in two decades. You know, we can do better than last year," Shaw said.
That's true — but there's a caveat. While the number of derailments are down, the number of accidents per miles traveled has risen significantly in the past decade.
Crew sizes shrink over time
One way Congress hopes to minimize further derailments is with the Railway Safety Act of 2023, which was introduced in response to the East Palestine derailment. It has both Republican and Democrat co-sponsors.
"We fully support the legislative intent to enhance rail safety, and I'm fully supportive of a bipartisan solution," Shaw said about the bill. "There are a lot of things in that bill that make perfect sense to us."
A central point in the bill is mandating a two-person crew minimum on certain freight trains. Currently, it's standard to have one conductor and one engineer on class I freight trains.
Years ago, it was typical to have a four-person crew on a freight train. Over time, some railroad positions like flagman (the crewmember manning a caboose) became less common due to advances in technology, and were deemed unnecessary. Now, the freight industry is heading in a direction where trains may only have one worker on board: an engineer, who is the person driving the train.
This is a future that many railroaders tell NPR they aren't thrilled about for a number of reasons, particularly because it would mean an engineer is alone on a locomotive in remote areas of the country for hours at a time.
During a Senate committee hearing in March, Shaw was asked if he would commit to a two-person minimum on Norfolk Southern trains. He didn't say yes or no, but told the committee that he wasn't aware of "data that links crew size and safety."
He shared that same sentiment with NPR, saying: "We have not seen a link between crew size and safety."
Shaw said one possible future of freight would be to have an engineer on a train assisted by a "ground-based conductor," who is not physically on the train, but nearby, and could be available as needed. Still, a number of experienced railroaders have told NPR there are valid reasons to keep the conductor on the train.
For one thing, having that ground-based conductor get to a train in a pinch is easier said than done, according to Hugh Sawyer, Jr., a locomotive engineer who has worked for Norfolk Southern for 35 years. "We're in isolated places and it's hard to get to us. It just depends on where you're at," he said.
There are also anecdotal stories about a conductor and engineer helping each other in an emergency, such as a heart attack. But Sawyer said engineers like himself advocate for conductors to stay on the train as a backstop for safety concerns as well. Conductors assist in things like coordinating with first responders.
"If I derail or if I have a train that comes apart, I'm up there by myself. I can't go back there and look at things and figure out what the heck is going on. A conductor typically jumps off the train and walks back to inspect what happened," Sawyer said. "Sometimes the trains just come apart ... it's critical to have somebody back there in a timely fashion, particularly if you have a derailment."
The move toward longer, heavier trains
Many of those working within the freight train industry told NPR they weren't surprised by the derailment in East Palestine, citing the way class I railroads in the U.S. have operated for years.
A business model referred to as PSR (precision scheduled railroading) was adopted by nearly every large freight railroading company in the last decade.
It was meant to streamline operations and make the companies run more efficiently than ever; and as a result, large numbers of employees were laid off – the freight rail workforce is down about 30% compared to where it was in 2016. At the same time, trains grew longer — up to about three miles long — and heavier, from several thousand tons to upwards of 20,000 tons.
Freight workers across multiple class I railroad companies have told NPR that nearly every aspect of their job has changed as a result of PSR — including reductions in time dedicated to locomotive maintenance, inspections and training.
These workers said that something like the East Palestine derailment wasn't just possible with the new way of operating, but inevitable.
Union official Clyde Whitaker shared that same sentiment during his testimony before a Senate committee hearing about improving rail safety in March. Whitaker is the Ohio state legislative director for SMART (the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers) for its transportation division, and has a background in railroading.
Whitaker told the Senate committee: "This derailment did not have to happen. And it makes it so much more frustrating for us to know that it was very predictable. And yet our warnings and cries for help over the last seven years have fallen on deaf ears, and the outcome was exactly as we feared."
Shaw told NPR he was encouraged by the fact Norfolk Southern employees felt welcome to raise their hand and offer suggestions for improvement, adding, "That's a big part of our safety program."
Norfolk Southern recently had its first ever company-wide town hall, open to their 20,000 employees, and safety was a key topic. But some of the company's employees, like Sawyer, aren't convinced they will be heard.
"I've been out here 35 years and nobody's asked me for my opinion on anything," he said. "I do feel like I can raise my hand, but who's going to see it?"
Asked if he would have changed anything about the company's response to East Palestine, Shaw doubled down. "I'm very proud of our response in East Palestine," he said, pointing to how the company was supporting the community to recover.
That support has included providing more than $64 million to the community and assisting more than 10,000 families.
"I go back almost every week and I sit and listen to the community about what we can do to help invest in the community and help it thrive," Shaw said. "And I'll keep going back. Each and every day, we're going to do the next right thing."
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