The East Palestine derailment has prompted a wave of scrutiny into the railroad industry’s record of deregulation and blocking safety rules.
Train-brake rules were rolled back under the Trump administration and have not been restored; hazardous material regulations were watered down at the behest of the railroad industry; and railroad workers have been decrying the safety impacts incited by years of staffing cuts, poor working conditions and neglect by railroad corporations in favor of Wall Street investors.
Stephanie Griffin, a former Union Pacific carman, explains, “Most railroad workers are fighting against an entire system that only exists as a money-making apparatus to the wealthy. Those trains run through our towns, but they do not run next to rich folks’ homes, nor next to our politicians’ homes. This is a top-down problem.”
“The railroads have opposed any government regulation on train length; they have sought waivers to eliminate having trained inspectors monitor railcars; and they have pushed back on the train crew staffing rule,” said Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (Blet) national president Eddie Hall in a statement after the NTSB preliminary report on the East Palestine derailment.
“The railroads and their trade association the Association of American Railroads (AAR) employ armies of lobbyists on Capitol Hill who are there not to promote safety regulations but to slow the implementation of federal safety regulations – or attempt to eliminate them altogether.”
Edward Wytkind, who served as president of the Transportation Trades Department (TTD) at the AFL-CIO, which represents the unions in the railroad industry, said that throughout his 25 years at the TTD, the railroad industry blocked all attempts to pass legislation or advance regulation on safety.
“From attempts to address worker fatigue, lack of coherent mandatory safety plans, increasing transparency to the public and first responders about what trains are carrying, the dangers of such long trains, or establishing floors for minimum train crew, the railroads blocked everything,” said Wytkind.
Jeff Kurtz, a retired locomotive engineer of 40 years in Iowa, said the railroad industry talking points on safety in response to the East Palestine derailment have been misleading, as the industry has trended toward adding several more railcars to trains, making them much longer, which can make derailments more damaging when they do occur. Despite safety concerns, this trend has been pursued to further cut costs and increase efficiency. The size of the train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio was 150 cars, more than twice the average length of trains operated by major railroads from 2008 to 2017. There is currently no limit imposed by the Federal Railroad Administration on train length.