As public outrage has grown over the toxic fallout from last week’s fiery derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train in East Palestine, Ohio, the urgent questions behind this disaster echo the past year’s confrontations over working conditions in the lightly regulated rail industry. Indeed, the catastrophe in Ohio—together with another hazardous derailment in Houston, Tex., just a week later—drives home the steep costs in health and well-being that we all incur when we fail to heed rail workers’ calls for more regulation and adequate staffing mandates.
As rail workers sought to win basic guarantees of staffing support and sick leave from rail carriers long accustomed to selling labor short and winning major regulatory concessions from federal agencies, they stressed how the unsustainable demands placed on their working lives would result in disasters just like the one in East Palestine. The northeast Ohio village of about 5,000 people is 40 miles northwest of Pittsburgh and 20 miles south of Youngstown; already those metropolitan areas are under alert for the air and water contamination originating from the Palestine derailment. And in Palestine proper, many residents are already reporting troubling health symptoms and dying area wildlife as they weigh the risks of remaining exposed to the toxic fumes and chemical leaks from the derailed tanker cars carrying hazardous materials.
In the immediate aftermath of the derailment, rail officials ordered that the vinyl chloride hauled by five of the Norfolk Southern cars in the 150-car train be burned off to prevent a still greater explosion—but that action sent hydrogen chloride and phosgene, two dangerous gasses, spuming into the air. EPA investigators have since identified other hazardous chemicals the train had been hauling, including ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene, and butyl acrylate. And the EPA has released a report saying that chemicals from the derailment have leached into the soil and water in the aftermath of the accident.
“We’ve been trying to share our concerns around this for a while now,” Ross Grooters, current rail employee and cochair of Railroad Workers United said. “It wasn’t a matter of if this was going to happen. It was a ‘when and where,’ and unfortunately, there’s a high likelihood that this will happen again, somewhere, if the root causes of the issues aren’t addressed.”
Rank-and-file workers organizing with Railroad Workers United (RWU) have waged high-profile pressure campaigns to improve rail safety and retain staffing. Jason Doering, an RWU organizer and a legislative representative of SMART Nevada, says that focusing industry and regulatory attention on the threat of derailments has been a continual challenge. Rail workers with Fight for Two Person Crews have been waging an allied campaign to lobby state and federal lawmakers to create and enforce standards for safer train staffing: a mandatory minimum of two person crews on freight trains. Last year, the Federal Railroad Administration proposed to reinstate a two-person crew rule and opened a public hearing in December 2022. During the public comment period for the rule change, more than 13,000 comments were logged in favor of it.
With the country’s attention now fixed on the disaster in East Palestine, reformers say that the time to act is now. “This is an opportunity for us to really identify safety risks in the industry,” said Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO (TTD). He noted that the TTD has been working on improving rail safety for workers and the communities in the path of freight traffic. “I think it’s something that you’ll hear from a lot of rail workers and people who’ve been seeing sort of the changes in the industry, the deterioration of the drastic reductions in workforce and the focus on speed over safety.”
Rail workers have insisted for years that the staffing cuts that rail carriers have pursued to pad their bottom line would create a safety crisis in the industry. “Through PSR [Precision Scheduled Railroading], they’ve cut staffing levels, not just for the operating side, but for maintenance…and basically all crafts across the line,” Doering said. These acute staff shortages also mean that freight lines are subject to incomplete or infrequent inspections, compounding the risks of environmental disaster.
“The job losses that we’ve seen and heard about over the last four to five years come at a price. A lot of times that price is public safety,” said one rail worker who requested anonymity in the face of potential retaliation from his employers. “The railroads cut off track maintenance and the tracks get inspected less…. I feel the railroad looks at these derailments as the cost of doing business while still coming out ahead.”
Grooters stressed that the breakdown in regulatory and labor standards is system-wide. “There isn’t one cause of this, and there’s not one fix. This is a series of failures,” they said. With “all those layers of protection that have been removed, it just sort of lined up perfectly to create this. It’s maddening and it’s scary, and people should be concerned.”
That warning has only become more urgent with the Union Pacific derailment in Houston, which killed one truck driver and sent more than 20 cars—some carrying hazardous materials—off the tracks. “The data that is reported through the Federal Railroad Administration shows that the frequency of the accidents [is] increasing,” Regan said. “The railroad industry will tell you that the number of derailments and the number of accidents have decreased, but if you take it based on the data that measures accidents per train mile, that’s actually increased over three of the four big railroads.” And that translates into increased risk for rail workers and surrounding communities alike, he adds: “That’s why we are constantly fighting to…maintain the safety standards we have and improve them.”
Ultimately, though, rail workers—who have been blocked by the Biden White House in seeking basic workplace guarantees such as sick leave—can’t be the only force holding rail carriers accountable in critical matters of public safety. The Department of Transportation—which has long treated rail carriers as clients rather than regulatory subjects—needs to meet the present public-safety crisis with more extensive and robust regulatory measures. “It’s more evident than ever that the DOT needs to act to increase the maintenance and inspection cycles for all of these cars on our tracks, and not just the hazmat, but all of them,” Doering said.
Grooters agrees: “It’s going to take more than one labor contract to resolve some of these issues.… It will take government regulation…. Ultimately, the railroads are not going to do the things they need to do to make it safe for workers and the communities that we’re traveling through, unless they’re forced to do it.” For too long, industry and government alike have been asleep at the switch in pursuing fundamental guarantees of oversight and public safety.