Lever News Silences Workers’ Voices and Gets the Story Wrong in East Palestine Derailment Coverage

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

On February 3, 2023, 38 cars of Norfolk Southern train 32N derailed in East Palestine, OH. 20 cars were carrying hazardous materials; several burned for more than two days, after which emergency crews conducted a “controlled burn” of the remaining chemicals:

The effects of the derailment and subsequent events on health, the air, the water, and the soil are still being sorted.

On February 23, 2023, the National Transportation Safety Board released its preliminary report on the derailment: “Norfolk Southern Railway Train Derailment with Subsequent Hazardous Material Release and Fires.” From that report:

While on scene, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators examined railroad equipment and track conditions; reviewed data from the signal system, wayside defect detectors, local surveillance cameras, and the lead locomotive’s event recorder and forward-facing and inward-facing image recorders; and completed interviews. NTSB investigators identified and examined the first railcar to derail, the 23rd railcar in the consist. Surveillance video from a local residence showed what appeared to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment. The wheel bearing and affected wheelset have been collected as evidence and will be examined by the NTSB….

Train 32N was operating with a dynamic brake application as the train passed a wayside defect detector on the east side of Palestine, Ohio, at milepost (MP) 49.81. The wayside defect detector, or hot bearing detector (HBD), transmitted a critical audible alarm message instructing the crew to slow and stop the train to inspect a hot axle. The train engineer increased the dynamic brake application to further slow and stop the train. During this deceleration, an automatic emergency brake application initiated, and train 32N came to a stop.

On the Fort Wayne Line of the Keystone Division, NS has equipped their rail network with HBD systems to assess the temperature conditions of wheel bearings while en route. The function of the HBD is to detect overheated bearings and provide audible real-time warnings to train crews. Train 32N passed three HBD systems on its trip before the derailment. At MP 79.9, the suspect bearing from the 23rd car had a recorded temperature of 38°F above ambient temperature. When train 32N passed the next HBD, at MP 69.01, the bearing’s recorded temperature was 103°F above ambient. The third HBD, at MP 49.81, recorded the suspect bearing’s temperature at 253°F above ambient. NS has established the following HBD alarm thresholds (above ambient temperature) and criteria for bearings:

• Between 170°F and 200°F, warm bearing (non-critical); stop and inspect

• A difference between bearings on the same axle greater than or equal to 115°F (non-critical); stop and inspect

Greater than 200°F (critical); set out railcar After the train stopped, the crew observed fire and smoke and notified the Cleveland East dispatcher of a possible derailment.

Or as Railfan and Railroad summarizes: “NTSB: Hot Bearing Caused East Palestine Wreck.”

On February 12, 2022, we wrote, in “How Precision Scheduled Railroading at Norfolk Southern Caused a Toxic Vinyl Chloride Mushroom Cloud Over East Palestine, Ohio“:

If a bearing overheats, it’s called a “hot box.” The heat is intense, and can damage the truck or even the car. The result will be a derailment. And the train that derailed at East Palestine had a hot box.

And we concluded:

No doubt [Norfolk Southern’s owners] are very happy with the Operating Ratio that [Norfolk Southern] achieved through [Precision Scheduled Railroading]. The chain of causality that begins with the hot box ends at their desks.

So NC got the story right and early. How did we do that? Simple. Railroad workers on the ground were our key sources (hat tip to John Russell of The Holler, who interviewed railroader Clyde Whitaker, chair of SMART local 145 and Ohio Legislative Director; quotes from other workers were left on the cutting room floor). Railroad workers on the ground understood the hot box issue, understood how trains are built (“blocking”), and understood the effects of Norfolk Southern’s vicious speedup, Precision Scheduled Railroading, which has slashed headcount by 30%, cutting maintenance generally, and cutting inspections which might have prevented it.

Meanwhile, the good folks at Lever News were all over the story, even (kudos to them) delivering an Op-Ed to the New York Times (of which more later). However, they got the story wrong. Let’s search on “hot box”:

Nothing. To be fair, let’s search on the less idiomatic “bearing”:

And let’s search on “Precision Scheduled Railroading”:

One hit (in the very first story on Feb 8, 2023, as we shall see). Here it is:

The same companies also slashed their workforces by nearly 30 percent in that timeframe as part of what they called “precision scheduled railroading.” Such staffing cuts are likely contributing to safety issues in freight railways. In a recent investor presentation, Norfolk Southern disclosed an increase in train accidents over the past three consecutive years.

“The massive reduction in the workforce, attendance policies that encourage people to come to work when they’re sick or exhausted, lack of access to [paid] leave, the stress that is constantly put on workers because of how lean the workforce has become, it creates a negative culture in terms of safety,” Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, told The Lever.

As you can see, Lever News in no way connects Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) to the hotbox that derailed train 32N. In fact, doesn’t even mention the hotbox.That’s because Lever News had and has an alternative theory of the case, unsupported by any evidence, and unmentioned in the NTSB’s preliminary report. We can see this best by putting the laudably exhaustive Lever News coverage in the form of a table[1]. I read all the articles. They are numbered in the left-hand column for easy reference.

Table 1: East Palestine Derailment Coverage at Lever News

Precision Scheduled Railroading Workers on the Ground “Hot Box” Bearing Inspections Paywall Lever News Story
(1) (Feb 8, 2023) Rail Companies Blocked Safety Rules Before Ohio Derailment (podcast version)
(2) (Feb 10, 2023) There Will Be More Derailments
(3) (Feb 12, 2023) The Man Responsible
(4) (Feb 14, 2023) Q&A About The Norfolk Southern Train Derailmen (podcast) (no transcript available)
(5) (Feb 15, 2023) Buttigieg Pretends He’s Powerless To Reduce Derailment Risks
(6) (Feb 16, 2023 Watch And Share Our Videos On The Derailment Disaster (in particular: “What Caused The Train Derailment In Ohio?”)
(7) (Feb 16, 2023) “Biden DOJ Backing Norfolk Southern’s Bid To Block Lawsuits”
(8) (Feb 17, 2023) Enviros Threaten Legal Action If Buttigieg Doesn’t Act
(9) (Feb 20, 2023) Driving The Narrative
(10) (Feb 22, 2023) How The Lever Forced Buttigieg To Do His Job (transcript)
(11) (Feb 22, 2023) On The Ground In East Palestine (w/ John Russell) (full transcript from John Russell’s The Holler).
(12) (Feb 23, 2023) After Norfolk Southern Support, DeWine Says No Disaster In East Palestine
(13) (Feb 26, 2023) Shadowbanning An Inconvenient Truth

When an item occurs in an article, it’s ☒ed, like “Precision Scheduled Railroading” in (1). Otherwise, it’s ☐ed.

Summarizing our results, you can easily see that “Precision Scheduled Railroading” is mentioned only twice, and only once in the context of the actual derailment. You can also see that bearings/”hot boxes,” inspections, and Precision Scheduled Railroading are mentioned in only one article, which is also the only article that uses workers on the ground as sources. And you can see that this article is paywalled, part of a podcast, and that the full transcript is not available on the Lever News site. So, to Lever News, workers are not sources, and Precision Scheduled Railroading and its discontents are not part of the story. Which is why they got the story wrong. That’s because they have a different theory of the case. To understand that theory, let’s dig into each of the articles:

From (1), introducing “Brake Theory,” Lever News’ theory of the case:

According to federal investigators, the derailment was caused by a mechanical issue with a rail car axle. [Steven Ditmeyer, a former senior official at the Federal Railroad Administration] and two other experts told The Lever that [Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP)] braking probably would have reduced the damage caused by the derailment by bringing the train to a halt more quickly and stopping all of the cars simultaneously.

“If the axle breaks, it’s almost certain that the train is going to derail,” said John Risch, a former BNSF engineer and national legislative director for the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Union. “ECP brakes would help to bring the train to a stop. What they do is activate the brakes on each car at the same time immediately. That’s significant: When you apply the brakes on a conventional train, they brake from the front to the rear. The cars bunch up.”

Risch said that ECP brakes are the “most remarkable advancement” he ever encountered in his 31-year career as a railroad worker, adding: “It needs to be implemented.”

Note that The Lever’s sources are wrong on the cause of the derailment (it was a “hot box,” not a broken axle[2]). Note also that ECP would not have prevented the derailment, but only reduced the damage. Finally, note the lack of worker sources on the ground. The Lever did not source anybody familiar with Train 32N, or anybody local.

From (2), Brake Theory continues. The headline: “It’s Time For ECP Brakes.” There’s no mention of East Palestine at all. It would seem that for Lever News, the story has congealed by February 10.

From (5), Brake Theory goes political. “A Twitter thread posted more than a week after Norfolk Southern’s fiery train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, Buttigieg indicated that he cannot reinstate an Obama-enacted, Trump-repealed law requiring some trains carrying hazardous materials to replace their Civil War-era braking systems with new Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brake technology.”

From (6), Lever News Editor David Sirota on YouTube (2:12) pushes Brake Theory: “Federal Railroad Administration Regulators told us that these brakes which are known as ECP brakes would have mitigated a disaster like this and we just learned today after the publication of our story Federal officials told us that this train did not have those brakes on the train.” Note again the claim that ECP “mitigates.” Nothing is said about the cause of the derailment; that is, apparently, not part of the story.

From (8), NGOs start pushing Brake Theory: “Six environmental groups will consider legal action if the Department of Transportation fails to act on a key rail safety rule, the groups wrote Thursday in a letter to Secretary Pete Buttigieg. The rule in question would force railroads to begin upgrading freight trains’ Civil War-era braking systems to newer, electronically controlled brakes allowing for faster and safer stops.”

From (9), Brake Theory escalates: “[W]e revealed how Norfolk Southern and the railroad industry watered down and then killed regulations mandating that railroads start replacing the Civil War-era braking systems on some hazmat trains with electronic brakes that experts say could have averted or mitigated the Ohio derailment.” Notice how “mitigated” has now changed to “averted or mitigated.”

(11) is the premium version of (10): “That’s it for today’s show. As a reminder, our paid subscribers who get overtime premium will get to hear our bonus segment, my interview with independent journalist John Russell, who has been on the ground in East Palestine for the last couple of weeks speaking with railroad workers and union leaders about this train derailment disaster.” So, again, the only Lever News article that mentions workers, hot boxes, bearings, and PSR as a cause of the derailment — that is, anything that conflicts with Brake Theory — is hidden behind a paywall.

(13) Sirota writes: “When The Lever’s rail safety reporting suddenly dominated the national news cycle, I thought we had found an elusive glitch in the matrix — a story so powerful, so rooted in indisputable evidence, and so widely amplified that its most important facts could not be manipulated or suppressed.” Except the Lever News coverage was not rooted “indisputable evidence” at all. The evidence — the bearings/”hot box”, and the role of Precision Scheduled Railroading — and “important facts” were, in fact, “suppressed,” as Table 1 shows, along with the voices of workers on the ground, who Lever News did not use as sources.

I mentioned the above that Sirota and the Lever News team published an Op-Ed in the New York Times, “Over 1,000 Trains Derail Every Year in America. Let’s Bring That Number Down.” On February 17, after a restatement of Brake Theory:

The [Department of Transportation] can require rail companies to deploy heat sensors known as hot-box detectors to warn train crews of overheated bearings before derailments happen. The sensors do not currently fall under federal regulation.

Odd to mention hot boxes on February 17 — again, NC had mentioned them on February 12, and there were plenty of other sources — and yet not to take the next step of revising Brake Theory to at least give consideration to the actual cause of the derailment. And yet in from February 20 onward, in (9), (10), (11), (12), and (13), Brake Theory remained unrevised — it was even escalated from “mitigating” the derailment to “averting” it. Nor were any workers on the ground interviewed.

* * *

I must say I’m disappointed. If you look how “Brake Theory” frames the East Palestine derailment story from the standpoint of a liberal Democrat, however, several advantages appear: (1) You don’t have to talk to workers on the ground (as Lever News did not), because who wants that; you can (2) focus on regulations and technical solutions, which liberals love, and above all (3) you don’t have to talk about Precision Scheduled Railroading, especially after having embarassingly legislated against a strike by railroad unions over PSR-driven working conditions. That would, after all, raise unpleasant questions about the control workers should have over working conditions, or even railroad nationalization. And for a certain sort of liberal, shoving the knife into Pete Buttigieg is an added bonus.

In fact, I’m here for shoving the knife into Mayo Pete in retribution for Iowa 2020. Have at it, say I! I’m all in favor of regulating railroads, and ECB sounds like a very good idea. However, if all these happy outcomes turn out to be the result of a false theory of the case, and the voices of workers on the ground are not centered, I do have to draw a line.


[1] I hope I got it all. I had to use Google, which is bad, but the Lever News search function is worse. Not only does it give inaccurate results, the results come in a horrid dropdown, which disappears when you click on one of the hits, after which you have to search again. Obviously unsuitable for constructing Table 1:

[2] At the time I wrote on February 12, there was plenty of hot box video available, and plenty of railworker chatter about it. I can’t fault Lever News for not covering this aspect of the story on February 8, but they never revised their subsequent coverage; they stuck with their theory. The same is true after thier Op-Ed of February 17.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Arizona Slim

    And this, people, is why I love Naked Capitalism. I mean, come on. Who hasn’t lived for final paragraphs like this one?

    “In fact, I’m here for shoving the knife into Mayo Pete in retribution for Iowa 2020. Have at it, say I! I’m all in favor of regulating railroads, and ECB sounds like a very good idea. However, if all these happy outcomes turn out to be the result of a false theory of the case, and the voices of workers on the ground are not centered, I do have to draw a line.”

    Boom. Mic drop.

    Thank you, Lambert, for brightening this cloudy, cold, and windy afternoon in Tucson.

    1. Kendra

      How about every airliner in the U.S. being grounded for a day? The Port of Los Angeles being backed up for months as well?

      “We are all East Palestinians-American is a sacrifice zone for greed.”

  2. marym

    There’s a screen shot of a 2018 Fortune headline saying “Trump rolls back train braking rule…” that’s repeated constantly in twitter replies to criticism of Biden and Mayo. I would add to the three advantages of Brake Theory for Democrats that for them it’s another chance to say Obama-good/Trump-bad, though I expect Sirota to be better on that point. He has a post today speaking to this. The post is paywalled but here’s a tweet:

    The Lever@LeverNews
    Obama ignored NTSB, sided with lobbyists & exempted the Ohio train from safety rules.
    Trump then repealed a remaining weakened rule.
    @SecretaryPete then refused to fix it.
    The White House & DC media are lying by only telling the anti-Trump story.

    1. lambert strether

      Using East Palestine as a springboard for better regulation while invoking [genuflects] Obama and suppressing discussion of Precision Scheduled Railroading is a real liberal Democrat power move.

    2. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you, Mary.

      It won’t surprise you, Lambert and other members of the NC community that the anti-Trump angle has surfaced in the UK.

      Yesterday evening, Channel 4 news, featured this story, the first time that I have seen it in the UK media. Some time was devoted to local concerns about the environmental impact, but the reporter spent more time focusing on how Trump adjacent conspiracy theorists are using this incident as evidence of a war on the white working class. In essence, the story was used to discredit legitimate concern as just playing into the hands of Trump.

      Last year, C4, owned by the government, the BBC, also owned by the government, and the Guardian were accused of being US media organisations, but based in London, such was their obsession with the US, or, to be accurate, US PMC concerns, not the concerns of ordinary Americans.

  3. Gulag

    Excellent safety analysis Lambert.

    But there is still something extremely troubling that appears ongoing–taken as you say “The effects of the derailment and subsequent events on health, the air, the water, the soil are still to be sorted.”

    It seems increasingly difficult to extend a line from the recent past in that community, through the present, in order to offer a promising future trajectory.

    Consequently, I have a suspicion that the world that the citizens of East Palestine have known ( including a sense of local pride and solidarity) may be coming to an end and that the logic of such a world no longer holds together.

    Has this community now become a symbol of our collective fate, where whatever we were born into is fast accelerating toward an ending that may be unstoppable?

    1. Screwball

      First, nice write up Lambert, and thank you for the continued coverage.
      Gulag, I’m not exactly sure what you mean, but going forward this little town will have a tough time IMO. As I’ve said before, I live about 3 hours from there, and have been through that part of the state many times. It is located in what I would call “the middle of steel country” between Pittsburgh, Akron, Cleveland, Youngstown – but many of those industries are now gone. I probably should say “what used to be” steel country.

      There are many small towns in Ohio that were once thriving small communities that depended on the steel industry (or auto) and industrialization of the North in general, but globalization sent all the jobs (and factories) overseas. So, IMO, their fate was set many years ago. Now, that small town, just like the one I live in, are already shells of what they once were. Poverty and crime has soared, people have left for jobs elsewhere. Blight takes over the landscape like creeping crud.

      For the people of East Palestine; they now have a chemical wasteland to deal with on top of that. I hope the executives of Norfolk Southern choke on their stock options, and I hope the people of EP sue the ever living snot out of them.

      Their future (like ours) isn’t so bright we need to wear shades (to borrow a phrase from a song). So sad.

      1. Janeway

        Rochester isn’t that far behind with Kodak and Xerox long ago bankrupt. 30,000 jobs poof gone since 1980.

        Difference is the steel factories have been offshored, film and paper have been erased so to speak.

          1. Late Introvert

            Not so sure about Kodachrome, but there are people still making, selling and shooting on film. And Kodak developed the first digital camera but stupidly failed to market it. Got to love the executive class in the good ol’ USA.

      2. BeliTsari

        Just south of there, I’d gotten OR’d videotaping Martin Sheen arrested, for defiant tresspass at WTI (a Swiss-owned toxic waste incinerator) it’s stack was BELOW a working class household, where I’d a great shot of kids leaving mom in the kitchen to run out to play in their lovely garden; plant & Cancer Valley, Frackistan in the background. I’d mentioned an interview about 2 years later, with a dying female EPA supervisor (Central Division EPA ends AT the PA border, not the Ohio) so it’s an absolute toxic, radioactive, red-lined cesspool of VERY unlikely EX-Democrats. The first commercial reactor was here, fracking beneath two GIANT old reactors isn’t even news! I’d not recognized Hillary Rodham’s name, or law firm, on the subpoena

      3. BeliTsari

        Unstoppable, was shot south of here; a sequence of RoboCop south of here; White Noise, north of here & Out of the Furnace, here and Braddock (including a Fetterman tattoo!) Shell’s cracker, Shippingport (Chernobyl, 101) and that single fracked ethane well blowout, that spewed more ethane & methane than EU states’ production was covered up till locals leaked FLIR footage). I believe The Crazies & Night of the Living Dead, but my then partner was turned down as a zombie extra (cloropromazine?) We were ALL aware of the day-to-day reality of shortcuts, non-conformance end-runs & glib, media & Democratic Party LIES (Fracking, for example was mostly MSNBC working class hero Ed Rendell) poisoning our most vulnerable, redlined amidst 12,222 Obama era 8-well-pads, as he threatened DEP inspectors, had 3rd Party auditors blackballed, journalists & whistleblowers arrested & protestors spied-upon, sued, thrown into solitary for trying to save her farm, and outed for gas industry thugs. Fundamentally, none of this has CHANGED since Pittsburgh’s Strip & Hill District were burned down, during The Great RR Strike of 1877, over the exact same nightmarish gaslit BS?

  4. Elizabeth

    Thanks Lambert for a great takedown of the Lever piece. Investigative journalism is a thing of the past. It’s just easier to blame someone without any context or background, and not even talking to the RR workers is a serious omission. No mention of PSR which was the factor causing this disaster.

    People hear it was DJT’s fault because he weakened railroad regulations, when in fact it originally St. Obama’s fault according to Dave Sirota. Everything wrong in this country is DJT’s fault.

    I hope this fiasco in E Palestine comes back to haunt the dems (especially Mayo Pete and for Biden) for not even going there when it first happened. Keeeeve was so much more important than this country. It will take years and billions of $$ to clean up the mess – assuming that is the plan.

    1. hk

      I think the correct answer is probably that it’s the result of the long rot that goes back decades, through presidencies and Congressional majorities of both parties. Generations of politicians, both Democrats and Republicans bear responsibility. But you are right that there will be a scramble on both sides to blame the other side, assuming that the voices asking uncomfortable questions are not denounced from get go as thought criminals disseminating “fake news” defaming an already great America. We need solutions, not finger pointing and mouth twitching masquerading as righteousness/justice.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > Investigative journalism is a thing of the past.

      I don’t think that’s true, and what was so surprising to me when read Lever’s coverage was how, well, off the “rails” it was compared to its previous “track” record.

      Next time, interview the workers on the ground should be the takeaway here.

      1. John Zelnicker

        Lambert – I, too, was disappointed in Sirota’s work on this wreck. He’s usually much better.

        I wish this post had come out yesterday. Reading Sirota’s post yesterday, I was thinking that he had missed the boat. I would have posted a link in the comments, as your analysis is so thorough (as usual).

        Maybe he’ll read it.

  5. cnchal

    No doubt [Norfolk Southern’s owners] are very happy with the Operating Ratio that [Norfolk Southern] achieved through [Precision Scheduled Railroading]. The chain of causality that begins with the hot box ends at their desks.

    Actually the chain of causality ends at the desks of the greedy psychos of Wall Street. The capital allocation function is profits before people. Wall Street is the beneficial owner of NS and it is ownership that is responsible. Management does as it’s told by the owners, so Wall Street demands shortcuts and headcount reduction to satisfy itself. The people can go to hell in the face of this power.

    1. Yves Smith

      No, that is false. Shareholders (unless they own a large enough block to have a board seat) do not even influence public companies. Equity is a weak promise: you get a dividend when the company makes money and if management and the board to decide to share, and you get votes which have no practical impact and can be diluted on some matters.

      See the classic Efficient Markets, Deficient Governance for more detail: https://hbr.org/1994/11/efficient-markets-deficient-governance

      1. upstater

        Ackman of Perishing Square, with board seats, was instrumental in bringing the PSR evangelist EH Harrison from Canadian National (the first PSR system) to Canadian Pacific in 2011. EHH was then poached in 2017 to move to CSX by Paul Hilal the CEO of Mantle Ridge (with board seats). Harrison was paid $80M signing bonus, but croaked in less than a year. he was seldom at HQ and ran CSX from his central Florida horse farm, towing an oxygen bottle. Harrison declared war on the unionized workforce wherever he was.

        After CSX, Wall Street analysts all asked for PSR. It was implemented by all Class1s, including a form by Berkshire Hathaway BNSF. I do no believe there were activist raiders In later PSR adoption, it was all koolaid .

        It will not go away. It is like crystal meth for profits for a monopolistic industry.

      2. John

        iirc, I read that the largest shareholders in Norfolk Southern are Black Rock and Vanguard. I would imagine they have the weight to influence management through the board. Whatever and whoever pulls the strings, cutting the labor force and putting profit before all other considerations looks like the default position for mega-corporations.

        1. Yves Smith

          BlackRock and Vanguard do not own the shares. This is a pervasive misperception.

          The shares are in “street” name in funds they mange or on behalf of brokerage accounts. My mother’s shares at Vanguard were listed as being owned by Vanguard even though she would vote any shareholder proxies.

          Most of the shares reported in their names owned by the funds they manage. The funds have institutions and individuals as investors.

          On top of that, BlackRock and Vanguard funds overwhelmingly are index funds. They are in the business of index replication at the lowest cost. They buy and sell shares solely to track index performance, not because they like or dislike what management is doing.

  6. upstater

    >When train 32N passed the next HBD, at MP 69.01, the bearing’s recorded temperature was 103°F above ambient.

    I assume this was in Salem OH, the place where the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had the security footage of the flaming or wildly sparking hotbox on the covered hopper that caused the derailment. Hopefully the NTSB will check the accuracy and calibration of the Norfolk Southern hotbox detectors in the miles leading up to the disaster.

    I would further expect the NTSB to issue recommendations for mandatory hotbox detectors and maintenance thereof.

    ECP braking is all well and good; had it been mandatory at the time of Lac Megantic Quebec, 47 people wouldn’t have been incinerated on a July 2013 evening (that was caused by an unattended locomotive fire which then bled off the air brakes and because insufficient hand brakes were set to hold the train on a downhill grade; I’d assume ECP would have locked all the trains brakes).

    In the case of East Palestine, the train was moving (IIRC 40 mph?), but ECP surely wouldn’t have prevented the derailment. Some cars, even with brakes fully applied, would have continued sliding on the steel rails. Remember, each wheel has contact with the rail only about the size of a dime. Each loaded rail car is approximately 125-140 tons. Steel on steel is very slippery. Far more than a rubber tire on pavement; we all know how cars or trucks skid on pavement even with a maximum brake application. The best that can be said for ECP braking in the East Palestine derailment that it would have been a little less bad, but still a disaster.

    But whether it is ECP, PSR, Positive Train Control (PTC – mandated GPS signaling), sick pay, crew fatigue or hotbox detectors the common thread is the greed of the railroad industry to do as little as possible WRT safety and employment.

    It took decades from the initial NTSB recommendation in 1990 to install PTC before Congress mandated it and even more time to implement it (only completed in 2020!). It took 25 deaths in a head on collision between a commuter train and a freight train in Chatsworth California in 2008 to instigate the Congressional PTC mandate (the commuter engineer was texting and blew through a red signal). Thirty years!

    ECP would certainly take as long to implement. Hotbox detector mandatory standards, far less time.

    1. lambert strether

      > ECP would certainly take as long to implement. Hotbox detector mandatory standards, far less time.

      And inspection, even less time (assuming the greedheads at NS don’t fight it tooth and nail. Oh, wait…).

      Thanks for your thoughts on ECB. I would also want to know how and whether ECB would work given that 32N was improperly blocked, one more thing Lever News might have considered.

    2. Piotr Berman

      “When train 32N passed the next HBD, at MP 69.01, the bearing’s recorded temperature was 103°F above ambient.

      I assume this was in Salem OH, the place where the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had the security footage of the flaming or wildly sparking hotbox on the covered hopper that caused the derailment. Hopefully the NTSB will check the accuracy and calibration of the Norfolk Southern hotbox detectors in the miles leading up to the disaster.”

      Indeed, my hazy physics knowledge says that a the wavelength emitted by “black body” decreases with temperature, and by kitchen experience assures me that when the water in a pot made of thin metal is boiling, there is no visible light from the pot, as opposed to a forgotten pot on the electric burner which is visible (thus emitting red instead of infrared, do not repeat such experiments!). Hence, the temperature of the car that was heated by the hot box was surely higher than 200 F, and it was not a scorching summer day but a winter night. And the bearing had to be hotter than the car sidings heated by the bearing.

      Along this arc, non-exclusive possiblities arise:

      reduced work force led to less frequent and less diligent inspection of axles and the devices remotely measuring temperature on car axles/bearing boxes
      in is not sufficient to check the temperature at 30 minute intervals, as a driver, I react much faster to a worrisome signal like a smell in front (as it happens when you overuse breaks on a mountain road)
      using “19th century breaking technology” is perhaps OK on super-slow trains, i.e. 25 mph that is normal in American freight trains, but less so on a train that goes 45 mph

      Sadly, we do not have causality statistics on 1000+ derailments annually in USA.

  7. Carolinian

    It would be helpful to have an explanation of exactly how a bad bearing causes derailment (and perhaps this has been offered and I missed it). Does the wheel seize up–in effect applying brakes to one wheel only–and cause the car to crab off the rails?

    And it sounds like from the NTSB that the wheel warning indicators at least did work. So I’m not sure I see why talking about better braking is wrong, if incomplete.

    BTW on our local rail line I’ve spotted a trunk sized device beside the track with a solar panel sticking up. I wonder if this is one of those wheel detectors.

    1. Piotr Berman

      Hot steel is softer than cold steel, you do not want to have axle as soft as clay, do you? Basically, overheated parts can break apart, unless specifically engineered. That said, 250 F above ambient should not affect steel parts to such a degree, thus suspicions about temperature checks.

      About better breaking: if a bearing falls apart and this failure derails a car of a train, it is too late to break with stopping distance reduced to, say, quarter mile or even eights of a mile.

  8. VietnamVet

    There are lots of causations and there will be repercussions from the East Palestine Ohio train crash. NC is the best. The WaPo is astonished that it is still news. No one died and structures weren’t destroyed. The paper blames conservatives and white residents for the story’s persistence.

    The hot box was the immediate cause of the derailment. The engines’ electrical motors resistance braking took out the slack in the train and slowed it down but then the breaking of the compressed air hoses by the car’s derailment triggered emergency braking which most likely increased the number of cars derailed. Apparently, the train side detectors worked but things went bad too fast. A 149 car train is an accident waiting to happen especially if track maintenance and inspections are reduced to cut costs. The fire overwhelmed local and state first responders. After burning for two days, a “controlled burn” allowed the tracks to be opened several days later; damn the consequences to the residents or the environment.

    The media reports what it is paid to print. Upgrading train brakes will increase safety but will only be legislated if donors who benefit from it pay the grift to congresspersons.

    This is the real news. It is becoming glaring obvious that that western media propaganda has no relationship with reality. North America is now composed of colonies who are exploited by globalists and two, the USA and Canada, are sending their wealth overseas to fight Oceania instead of taking care of things at home.

  9. James E Keenan

    I have to confess that I had never heard of Lever News before this analysis by Lambert. Should I have been following it? What is its importance in the news universe?

    I have an acquaintance who works on the management side of a short-line railroad. He has to deal with the Class I railroads and their PSR every day. He remarked, “They won’t be satisfied until each train is driven by a 19-year-old sitting in his mother’s basement with a joystick.”

    1. lyman alpha blob

      Lever news is a fairly new news outlet started by David Sirota. From what I’ve read from them so far, they are pretty good overall and Sirota has a very good track record as a reporter for many years. Sirota also worked on Sanders’ campaign and was involved with the recent Don’t Look Up movie.

      I read the Lever article on this and also saw an interview Sirota gave on the subject. While they don’t get into the details as well as lambert does above concerning the bearings/hotbox issue and Precision Scheduling Railroading (which are important!), I thought that overall they were pretty evenhanded in covering this topic.

      I certainly haven’t seen all of their coverage, but this article from a couple weeks ago does mention speaking with at least one (perhaps former) rail worker: https://www.levernews.com/rail-companies-blocked-safety-rules-before-ohio-derailment/

      “Prior to the stock buyback era, railroads agreed that ECP brakes were a good thing,” said Ron Kaminkow, a longtime railroad worker and organizer with Railroad Workers United. “The railroads hadn’t yet come to the realization that they could do whatever they wanted. ECP brakes were on the drawing board, then off.”

      I’m taking the above as a recent quote given for the article, but I could be wrong. Other than that though, the linked article doesn’t talk to people on the ground, but it is a pretty well researched summary of the regulatory regime, or lack thereof, that got us here and there is plenty of blame to go around.

      Also, just found this more recent piece at Lever which I have not listened to yet, but which does mention talking with an indy reporter on the ground in E Palestine who has talked extensively with rail workers, residents and union leaders: https://www.levernews.com/lever-time-how-the-lever-forced-buttigieg-to-do-his-job/

      Maybe they are taking lambert’s advice!

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        > Maybe they are taking lambert’s advice!

        Too much to hope for, perhaps. The link you mentioned is in Table I. There are two incarnations. The interview with the indy reporter is paywalled. To say this more forcefully, the only time that Lever News was even one degree of separation away from a worker on the ground — through John Russel of the Holler — the information would not have been picked up by the national press.

        > thought that overall they were pretty evenhanded in covering this topic.

        They absolutely were not. Lever notes proudly (and indeed they can be proud) that they dominated and structured the national coverage of the East Palestine story. I am sure they are correct, since as I did my reading, I found that most of the stories led back to their coverage one way or the other.

        So what did they do with their dominance? Through “brake theory,” their incorrect theory of the case, they focused national attention on a regulatory issue and dogpiled Mayo Pete.

        The opportunity cost of their editorial decisions, which the hot box reality understood by workers on the ground would have led them to, had they treated those workers as sources, was focusing attention on Precision Scheduled Railroading. (Of course, that would have been embarrassing to the national Democrats, who just busted a rail strike whose working conditions issues were driven by Precision Scheduled Railroading.)

        I am at a loss to understand how you could possibly characterize that as “even-handed.” If nobody talked to pilots after the 737 crashes, would you characterize that as even-handed?

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > What is its importance in the news universe

      There are a number of smaller, reader-funded, non-“mainstream” publications that have appeared oh, since 2016 perhaps? The whole substack phenomenon is one example of this, what with Taibbi (and, until recently, Greenwald). Non-substack but reader-funded publications like Payday Report are another example. So is podcasting generally. (The role of RSS is distributing podcasts is understudied; RSS eliminates gatekeepers, which is why there is no successful podcasting platforms.) And of course old-school blogs like NC fall into this bucket as well.

      So does Lever news, which is worth following. Sirota, editor of Lever News, has survived as an independent-minded a progressive for a long time; he worked on the 2020 Sanders campaign, for example. Which is why Lever’s East Palestine coverage disappointed me so very much.

  10. Bushwood

    I don’t think I’ve seen this in the links the past few days so I figured I’d share. In summary Marco Rubio and JD Vance penned a letter to Buttigieg and called out worker complaints and PSR.

    “Wrote the two lawmakers in a letter to Buttigieg: “We request information from the U.S. Department of Transportation regarding its oversight of the United States’ freight train system and, more generally, how it balances building a safe, resilient rail industry across our country in relation to building a hyper-efficient one with minimal direct human input.””

    There’s a lot more to the article and well worth a read. As you like to say, it’s like they want me to vote for them.


  11. Telee

    The incineration of the cars carrying vinyl chloride produced dioxins, an extremely toxic compound which can result in cancer, damage to the immune system along with a myriad of other harmful outcomes. This significant fact is being largely ignored. Telling the people in East Palestine that all is well is a crime. Of course we have all been exposed to dioxins largely from contamination of our food as well as other sources.

    1. Michael Fiorillo

      Dioxin is known to cause skin rashes upon acute exposure; photos of East Palestine and other local residents exhibiting them immediately made me think of it.

      As I recall, it was the active ingredient in Agent Orange, used in Vietnam to defoliate the countryside in hopes of exposing the Viet Cong. Thousands of veterans, to say nothing of Vietnamese, were poisoned by it, and it seems class war has brought it all back home to Ohio and Western Pennsylvania…

      1. Telee

        People in East Palestine are complaining about skin rashes. Ohio governor Mike DeWine said there is no disaster. I’m reading that the initial monitoring of the air, soil, and water was done by a company employed by Norfolk Southern. Dioxins can cause bladder cancer, B cell lymphoma, Hodgkin’s Disease, multiple myeloma, lung cancer, soft tissue sarcoma etc. The people of East Palestine are sitting ducks. The assurances given to the people on the ground are an attempt to minimize the danger. This is standard procedure. I lived through 3 Miles Island and the same thing was done by the company, NRC and the State of Pennsylvania in spite of farmers seeing a white powder on their farm land, their cattle paralyzed, increases in infant death, thyroid cancer, lymphomas etc. I had a 22 year old friend who was in the plume released by the reactor and died of cancer. When the head of the PA. Health Department wanted to follow with statistics, he was promptly fired by Gov. Thornburgh who appointed an industry compliant Health Secretary.

        1. BeliTsari

          I’d been down Middletown, at the peak of fall color & got my car inspected in a lovely neighborhood with REALLY beautiful view down the Susquehanna (and the cooling towers). Last time was a friend, dying of brain cancer. I’m sure, it was smoking, drinking, fishing, hunting, working in a quite literally Dickensian mill in Steelton, grinding & torching ends for decades? I’d a coworker, who’d left TMI, loaded his family into a Griswald wagon & took off across the river, windows up at 110mph for Pittsburgh. I’d called my mom & friends to put up my girlfriend’s family, in case Philly was evacuated & my brother left Manhattan by plane for several weeks. We ALL gave up our favorite Amish & organic dairy, venison & even Hometown Market, for decades?

      1. Winston Smith

        This is what we are missing, the words phosgene and dioxin are being thrown around a little to casually

      2. Telee

        Both Ohio senators, Brown and Vance are concerned about dioxins and are asking for testing for dioxins which isn’t being done. Yes I am a chemist and a biochemist. I am not being “casual” or ” just throwing words around.”

  12. Elizabeth Burton

    According to a union representative on The Problem with Jon Stewart The train in question had exactly 3 employees on board, and one of those was a trainee. So, the lack of “worker voices” may be because there weren’t a whole lot of those available, and given most of the people quoted here are union reps as well that criticism strikes me as just a tad petty.

    The stated goal of The Lever is and always has been to hold those in power accountable. Which is precisely what they’ve done, and the fact they have a paywall (which costs five bucks a month) is how they raise the funds to do it. What real difference does it make how often they use the term “hotbox”, which the vast majority of the population wouldn’t recognize anyway? And even this hit piece states clearly that the modern baking system likely would have reduced the level of damage. Doesn’t that count?

    Focusing on details while ignoring the inarguable fact that this disaster is the direct result of corporate lobbying and regulation capture over decades is precisely why that malfeasance is allowed to continue. That’s The Lever‘s focus and always has been. If you want something different, I recommend following the coverage on the ground by Status Coup.

    Much as it pains me to say it, the catastrophe in E. Palestine could be the watershed moment when the average working stiff finally wakes up to the fact those in charge don’t give a damn what happens to them, an attitude that has been exposed in all its glory these last few weeks by the independent press. Meanwhile, the corporate variety was busy panicking over balloons and swooning over the Biden fake air-raid alarm in Kyiv. Strikes me that’s a bigger target for critique than The Lever.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > the catastrophe in E. Palestine could be the watershed moment when the average working stiff finally wakes up to the fact those in charge don’t give a damn what happens to them

      So you’re saying we don’t need to worry about the real cause of the derailment because workers are too stupid to understand it, and that although Precision Scheduled Railroading was the driver behind the railroad workers’ union strike that Democrats suppressed, “a watershed moment” is going to come because Mayo Pete got dogpiled into making some kinda promise of future regulation? The door to Daily Kos is over there!

      Hit piece, my Sweet Aunt Fanny. If indeed you read the piece, check out Table I. If Lever News wanted to get the story right, all they had to do was talk to workers on the ground. I hope the lesson sinks in, but if your comment is anything to go by, it won’t.

      > And even this hit piece states clearly that the modern baking system likely would have reduced the level of damage. Doesn’t that count?

      What a profoundly specious argument. “My house caught fire because the stove guy didn’t tighten the propane tank fitting, but the sprinkler system kept everything from being completely destroyed. Doesn’t that count?”


      Try harder. Much harder.

    2. hunkerdown

      The issue goes beyond nomenclature. Each failed component implies its own theory of causation, with important implications. Brakes might be explained away as a typical corporate penny-pinching failure. We all have to get our cars’ brakes changed every year or two, right? Plus, the problem can be blamed on Trump, rather than the fundamental bipartisan agreement on neoliberal perfectionism. The gee-whiz techno brakes solution is a non sequitur that leaves important parts of the problem to take root where they stand, and does nothing to address the organizational and other issues that led to identifying the problem later in the causal chain.

      On the other hand, the case of overheated bearings, where a well-publicized but ill-advised anti-labor reform and automated centralization recently reduced the train crew size to three, inspires more uncomfortable questions about train crews being unable to exercise due diligence in running the trains they’re responsible for. Democrats seem more interested in pushing whatever partisan passion play narrative feeds into the induced mass psychosis that is election spirit, than in answering questions about this latest industry wave of labor discipline and the tacit bipartisan approval. It’s more meaningful, apparently, to hijack workers’ rights into virtue-signaling against Trump for the election, than to discipline management for pressing labor too hard (why would the PMC’s political expression do that to themselves?!).

      Sirota must be auditioning for work in this next election season. Gross.

    3. Lambert Strether Post author

      > So, the lack of “worker voices” may be because there weren’t a whole lot of those available, and given most of the people quoted here are union reps as well that criticism strikes me as just a tad petty.

      There were certainly enough for The Holler to interview.

      Also, the universe of people to interview is not the 3 people on the train, but (a) all the workers who were familiar with 32N, certainly more than 3, and (b) all the workers who worked on that NS division, and knew how the trains moved within it. Failing that (c) union locals.

      You really do need to know just a little bit about railroading….

  13. Winston Smith

    I also listened to “the problem” and found it very interesting. The MSM is useless. I found a youtube video of a East Palestine town Hall featuring Erin Brockovich and people (lawyers?!) who had detailed stats concerning the safety record of the company over many years…that was the most interesting part but only lasted 10-15 minutes. Start listening at 48 minutes. Brockovitch’s message is also important but repetitive: unite, play the long game because this is going to go on for 10-20 yrs, do not get divided along political lines etc

    As an analytical chemist with 25 yrs experience (not in the environmental field), I am appalled by the coverage. These derailments of hazardous chemicals are nothing new and doubtless there are/have been case studies over decades of the consequences of such events…where are the voices of the experts who have studied this?

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > play the long game

      I am 100% certain from my experience fighting the landfill in Maine — I was by no means the leader, but I helped and watched with great interest — that working people can master all the technical, regulatory, political, and media detail and make a real impact. (People from the Bangor Daily News were calling our little group because of our expertise!) We did not get the first landfill shut down, but we marked up the vendor real good, and a second landfill was never built. I hope somebody from East Palestine reads this. Take heart!

      Industrial chemist, eh? Please check your mail.

      1. Winston Smith

        Not industrial chemist, not even remotely…more in biotech field but still a solid grounding in analytical chemistry (mass spectrometry). All I am saying is that there must be scientist out there who can answer the questions being asked by the people of East Palestine. Open air combustion of reactive chemical compounds are bound to produce nasties. changed email I think that the previous one is too difficult to access

  14. hemeantwell

    It’s March 4, five days since publication. Is Sirota aware of these criticisms and has he responded to them?

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