Cincinnati voters will decide next Tuesday whether to allow the company responsible for the toxic train crash in East Palestine, Ohio earlier this year to purchase the last remaining municipally owned interstate railroad in the United States.
Norfolk Southern has been working to buy the Cincinnati Southern Railway (CSR) for years, but the effort largely flew under the national radar until one of the company's trains derailed in
in February 2023, unleashing chemical pollution that sparked major public health concerns and put the small Ohio town in the spotlight.
The wreck brought renewed scrutiny to Norfolk Southern's lax safety procedures, poor treatment of workers, and long history of lobbying against basic regulatory measures, making the hugely profitable corporation a poster child of rail industry greed and dysfunction.
Concerns about Norfolk Southern's practices in the wake of the East Palestine disaster have fueled opposition to the company's proposed $1.6 billion purchase of the CSR, which has been in public hands since its construction in the late 1800s.
The unelected Cincinnati board of trustees that manages the 338-mile CSR and the city's Democratic mayor announced and celebrated the proposed sale last November, setting the stage for the November 7 vote on Issue 22.
Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center organizer Magda Orlander told In These Times on Wednesday that public opposition to the proposed sale has been "snowballing" since early voting began in early October. The grassroots group Derail the Sale has formed in opposition to Issue 22 and a number of local organizations, including the Cincinnati NAACP and Neighborhoods United Cincinnati, have joined the fight.
"When a big corporation, with all these investment interests behind it, throws around a wad of cash like that, it's pretty clear who's getting duped," said Orlander, referring to the $4.25 million that Norfolk Southern has spent trying to build support for the sale, which recently won the approval of federal regulators.
At a rally against the sale last month, Brian Garry, the executive director of Neighborhoods United Cincinnati, said that the CSR is "the largest asset that we own."
"It's like our family savings and they're just selling it," said Garry. "They say they’re building Cincinnati's future? They're selling Cincinnati's future."
Cincinnati, which is roughly 300 miles from East Palestine, has been leasing its railway to Norfolk Southern for decades, and the existing agreement with the company currently brings the city roughly $25 million a year.
If the sale is approved, the $1.6 billion in proceeds would be placed in a trust fund operated by the unelected Cincinnati Southern Railway Board of Trustees, which unanimously approved Norfolk Southern's purchase last year.
Proponents of the sale have touted its potential economic benefits for the city, which—thanks to a recent change to a 150-year-old statute —could spend the sale revenue on infrastructure improvements.
But critics of the deal have cast doubt on the supposed financial boon the sale would bring to Cincinnati and raised concerns about potential economic risks.
"Money flowing into Cincinnati’s coffers under the current CSR lease agreement guarantees $25 million per year for infrastructure improvements in the city," Werner Lange, a retired educator with five grandchildren living in Cincinnati, wrote in a May op-ed for the Cincinnati CityBeat .
"Under the purchase agreement signed last November, there is absolutely no such guaranteed income, only speculation," he added. "According to recent state law, should there be more than a 25% loss on speculative investments made by appointed financial managers from the $1.62 billion sale price, then the city receives nothing—nada—until the stock market loss is rectified, if ever. A lesson often painfully learned too late, amplified by recent bank failures, is that a bird in hand is worth more than two in the bush."
"The Cincinnati Southern Railway is more than just a railroad; it's a testament to Cincinnati's visionary past and a beacon for a self-reliant future."
Safety and health concerns have also animated opposition to the sale.
Last month, leaders of the Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment—a community oversight committee formed in the wake of the February crash— implored Cincinnati voters to vote no on Issue 22 , arguing that "there is no benefit from the sale of Cincinnati Southern Railway that outweighs the health of your families."
"Do not make the same mistakes our community did and ignore the dangers associated with Norfolk Southern," the council's president and secretary wrote in an op-ed for the Cincinnati Enquirer . "Open your eyes, look around you, research the facts to make an informed decision for your families' health, your children's health, and the health of future generations. We never want another community to feel the earth-shattering words of the Centers for Disease Control telling you that you all have had chemical exposure and they don't know what to do about that, but they do know how to treat the cancers it could cause in the future."
While the sale has garnered support from some unions, including the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, other rail unions and labor activists in Ohio and around the country have raised alarm about the prospect of Norfolk Southern buying up the nation's only municipally owned interstate railroad.
Railroad Workers United (RWU), an inter-union alliance representing rail workers across the United States, has helped organize local opposition to the Norfolk Southern sale, describing Issue 22 as a choice between public ownership of a critical community asset and the "short-term gain" offered by privatization. RWU supports the full nationalization of U.S. railroads.
Jason Doering, a locomotive engineer and labor activist, wrote in a social media post on Wednesday that "the citizens of Cincinnati are at a historical crossroads."
"The choice they make could either uphold a legacy of public ownership that has withstood the test of time or cede control to private interests, potentially eroding the very fabric of community self-determination and financial prudence that has defined Cincinnati for over a century," Doering wrote. "The Cincinnati Southern Railway is more than just a railroad; it's a testament to Cincinnati's visionary past and a beacon for a self-reliant future."