A derailed Norfolk Southern train is seen in Michigan

A derailed Norfolk Southern train is seen in Van Buren Township, Michigan on February 18, 2023.

(Photo: Nick Hagen/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Rail Labor Leader Calls Norfolk Southern's Business Model 'Dangerous to America'

"They gamble with your money, and you hold all the risk if they lose by putting a toxic train in the ditch in your community."

A rail labor leader on Wednesday sent a scathing letter to Ohio's Republican governor warning that Norfolk Southern's business model poses a threat to communities across the U.S.—one that must be met with swift regulatory action.

"I am writing to share with you the level of disregard that Norfolk Southern has for the safety of the railroad's workers, its track structure, and East Palestine and other American communities where NS operates," reads the letter by Jonathon Long, general chairman of the American Rail System Federation (ARSF) of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (BMWED), which represents nearly 3,000 Norfolk Southern employees tasked with constructing, inspecting, and maintaining railroad tracks.

Long, who has been a Norfolk Southern maintenance of way employee for nearly three decades, wrote to Ohio Mike DeWine that Norfolk Southern is "one of many freight railroads operating under the cost-cutting business model, 'precision scheduled railroading,' otherwise known as 'PSR.'"

"This business model was foisted upon the railroad industry by Wall Street 'activist investors' and hedge funds starting around 2015," Long noted. "What this business model really involves is running longer, heavier behemoth trains that the track structures are not necessarily designed to handle."

"It also involves the concentrated slashing of employees from the workforce (30% industry-wide since 2015, 21% for NS Maintenance of Way Employees) and then shifting the workload onto those remaining workers, pushing them to work faster and longer hours," he continued. "Additionally, PSR involves eliminating fail-safes or preventative safety precautions that promote safer rail operations and help prevent disasters such as derailments."

Emphasizing the rail giant's lack of concern for worker health and safety, Long wrote that he received reports from employees indicating that Norfolk Southern "neither offered nor provided" adequate protective equipment to those who were instructed to assist clean-up efforts in the wake of last month's toxic derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

According to Long:

One worker shared with me that he called his supervisor and requested to be transported off the derailment site due to concerns of his safety caused by the exposure to the chemicals which were causing him nausea and migraines; the supervisor stated he would get back to the employee, but he never heard back from his supervisor and the employee was left on the job site. Many other employees reported that they continue to experience migraines and nausea, days after the derailment, and they all suspect that they were willingly exposed to these chemicals at the direction of NS.

Long argued that such blatant neglect is "a basic tenet" of Norfolk Southern's "cost-cutting business model," which he called "dangerous to America" because it "disregards the sanctity of human life for the sake of more record profits."

The labor leader went on to reveal that during recent talks over paid sick leave, Norfolk Southern urged union negotiators to drop their opposition to the company's "experimental automated track inspection program," which workers fear is a ploy to replace and ultimately weaken existing track inspection protocols.

Long attached a copy of the company's request to his letter to DeWine, noting that "while BMWED and NS reached an agreement on paid sick leave, I absolutely did not agree with NS' proposal to support their experimental track inspection program."

"NS' proposal was ultimately for the union to be complicit in NS' effort to reduce legally required minimum track safety standards through supporting their experimental track inspection program without a sensible fail-safe or safety precautions to help ensure trains would not derail," Long wrote.

"In other words," he added, the rail company's plan "was to use your community’s safety as their bargaining chip to further pursue their record profits under their cost-cutting business model. They gamble with your money, and you hold all the risk if they lose by putting a toxic train in the ditch in your community."

Long's letter came as lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate pushed new legislation this week aimed at strengthening regulations for trains carrying hazardous materials and increasing penalties for companies that violate safety rules.

"It shouldn't take a massive railroad disaster for elected officials to put partisanship aside and work together for the people we serve—not corporations like Norfolk Southern," Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said in a statement Wednesday marking the introduction of a bipartisan Senate bill for which he is one of the lead Democratic sponsors.

"Rail lobbyists have fought for years to protect their profits at the expense of communities like East Palestine and Steubenville and Sandusky," Brown added. "These commonsense bipartisan safety measures will finally hold big railroad companies accountable, make our railroads and the towns along them safer, and prevent future tragedies, so no community has to suffer like East Palestine again."

In his letter Wednesday, Long warned that unless concrete action is taken at the state and federal levels to rein in Norfolk Southern and other rail giants, more trains will "go off the rails in communities like East Palestine."

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