"These companies siphon billions into share buybacks, dividends, and bonuses rather than into the vital maintenance and infrastructure growth we need to build a safe, modern, and thriving rail industry," said one worker.
After at least six major freight train derailments occurred across the United States over the past week, the need for stronger rail safety rules couldn't be clearer, an interunion alliance of rail workers said Monday.
"The recent uptick in derailments across the U.S. highlights the dire need for stricter regulations on the length and weight of trains, as well as a focus on preventing unsafe operational practices such as precision scheduled railroading (PSR) which prioritizes short-term financial gains for Wall Street over the safety of communities and railroad workers," Jason Doering, a locomotive engineer and general secretary of Railroad Workers United (RWU), said in a statement.
The past week "was not a good one" for the nation's Class 1 rail carriers, RWU observed.
On Sunday, March 26, a Canadian Pacific train carrying hazardous materials careened off the tracks outside Wyndmere, North Dakota, spilling liquid asphalt and ethylene glycol and releasing propylene vapor.
Last Monday, a Union Pacific iron ore train reached 118 miles per hour as it ran away down Cima Hill in the Mojave Desert before wrecking on a curve, destroying two locomotives and 55 cars in San Bernardino County, California.
On Wednesday, a Canadian National iron ore train derailed in Butler County, Pennsylvania.
On Thursday, a BNSF train carrying ethanol and corn syrup crashed near Raymond, Minnesota, causing a fire that forced local residents to flee.
On Friday, a Norfolk Southern train went off the tracks in Irondale, Alabama.
One day ago, a train operated by the Class 2 regional Montana Rail Link—soon to be owned by BNSF—derailed on the banks of the Clark Fork River in Paradise, Montana.
"The recent uptick in derailments across the U.S. highlights the dire need for stricter regulations on the length and weight of trains, as well as a focus on preventing unsafe operational practices such as precision scheduled railroading."
"Rail workers are not surprised to see the dramatic increase in rail incidents following the widespread cuts to the industry," said locomotive engineer and RWU steering committee member Paul Lindsey.
"Each year these companies siphon billions into share buybacks, dividends, and bonuses rather than into the vital maintenance and infrastructure growth we need to grow a safe, modern, and thriving rail industry," Lindsey added.
Norfolk Southern has become the poster child for freight industry greed as the toxic aftermath of February's fiery train derailment and ensuing chemical spill and burnoff continues to unfold in East Palestine, Ohio.
Questioned last month at a U.S. Senate hearing about the ongoing public health and environmental disaster, Norfolk Southern president and CEO Alan Shaw refused to commit to giving workers seven days of paid sick leave or halting stock buybacks.
More Perfect Union has calculated that payouts to Norfolk Southern's shareholders soared by more than 4,500% over the past 20 years, from $101 million in stock repurchases and dividend bumps in 2002 to $4.7 billion in 2022.
Shaw also refused to commit to ending PSR, the profit-maximizing scheduling system that forces fewer workers to manage longer trains in less time, even though unions and progressive lawmakers argue the Wall street-endorsed model makes the U.S. rail system more dangerous and contributes to the 1,500-plus derailments seen nationwide each year.
Although Norfolk Southern epitomizes how railroad executives prioritize profits above all else, the corporation is far from alone in pushing for deregulation and implementing anti-worker, pro-investor policies.
An OpenSecrets analysis published last month found that the rail industry spent more than $713 million lobbying against enhanced rail safety rules at the federal and state levels between 2002 and 2022. Top spenders include the Association of American Railroads trade group, CSX, Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, and BNSF's parent company Berkshire Hathaway, which is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett.
While RWU has made the case for nationalizing the railroads, it has also outlined a plan for reforms that can be quickly implemented in the absence of such a sweeping transformation. Specific provisions the alliance has called for include sufficient staffing; limits on train length and weight; adequate maintenance and inspections; and better training and employee benefits.
Last week, Sens. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) introduced the Railway Accountability Act, which includes some of the measures sought by RWU and is supported by unions including the Transport Workers of America (TWU), the National Conference of Firemen & Oilers (NCFO), and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers-Mechanical Division (SMART-MD).