Rail Workers Warn Safety Bill Loopholes Are Big Enough to ‘Run a Freight Train Through’

Yves here. Perhaps I don’t have the right media diet, but the East Palestine toxic explosion appears to have moved out of prime news coverage awfully quickly. And before you say it’s because the victims were poor whites, recall that lead-drinking Flint residents were overwhelmingly poor people of color…to eventually be insulted by clearly not poor President Obama. Admittedly, here we have a second disadvantaged group, rail workers, who are also being ignored.

That omission looks strategic, since as Lambert has explained long form, Precision Scheduled Railroading played an integral role in the derailment. Rail workers had just had the Biden Administration (with Congressional assistance) quash strike over Scheduled Railroading created workplace conditions. So conveniently, to the extent the press is covering why the accident occurred, it’s blaming brakes, which allows the blame cannons to be aimed at a Trump-era regulatory rollback…when brake theory fans concede having those regs in place would at best have reduced the severity of the crash.

Sadly, although this post has some useful updates in its opening section, it too repeats the canard that allows for Trump-bashing, as opposed to a more thorough look at the history of railroad de-regulation, that electronically controlled pneumatic braking systems were major culprits in the crash. Again, please read Lambert’s takedown to see why that just ain’t so.

Perhaps you can help by sending Lambert’s post to the Common Dreams author Brett Wilkins and encouraging him to get up to speed on why the train derailed and how that has implications for reform efforts.

By Brett Wilkins. Originally published at Common Dreams

Amid heightened national focus on railway safety in the wake of the East Palestine, Ohio disaster and other recent accidents, one railroad workers’ union warned Friday that, while welcome, a bipartisan rail safety bill has “loopholes big enough to operate a 7,000-foot train through.”

The Railway Safety Act of 2023—introduced earlier this week by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), John Fetterman(D-Pa.), and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.)—is meant to “prevent future train disasters like the derailment that devastated East Palestine.”

The legislation would impose limits on freight train lengths—which in some cases currently exceed three miles. The measure was introduced a day after Democratic U.S. Reps. Ro Khanna(D-Calif.) and Chris Deluzio (D-Pa.) put forth a billthat would require the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to impose stricter regulations on trains carrying hazardous materials.

“We welcome greater federal oversight and a crackdown on railroads that seem all too willing to trade safety for higher profits,” Eddie Hall, national president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), said in a statement.

While BLET appreciates that Brown’s bill includes language stipulating that “no freight train may be operated without a two-person crew consisting of at least one appropriately qualified and certified conductor and one appropriately qualified and certified locomotive engineer,” the union warned of “significant” exceptions in the proposal. For example, the bill as currently written would only apply to operations on long-distance freight trains.

BLET said it “will seek changes to the wording of the two-person crew language to tighten the loopholes.”

“If the language is not precise, the Class 1 railroads will avoid the scope of the law without violating the law, yet again putting the safety of our members and American communities into harm’s way,” Hall argued. “You can run a freight train through the loopholes.”

In 2015, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration finalized a rule requiring the installation of electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) braking systems on trains carrying hazardous materials.

Corporate lobbyists subsequently pressed the Obama administration to water down the rule, which was repealed entirely during the Trump administration’s regulatory rollback spree.

Current U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieghas not made reinstating the ECP rule a priority. Instead, DOT regulators are considering a proposal backed by the Association of American Railroads, an industry lobby group, that would reduce brake testing. Five major rail unions including BLET strongly oppose the proposal.

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  1. TimH

    The testing issue is a red herring. The situation to avoid is a derailment or similar incident. Make the operator explicitly liable in such an event, with a (presumably insurance backed) bond for $1B payable immediately on incident to the state. Now the insurance company and the operator have an incentive.

    1. LAS

      Agreed — when the railroad execs take these risks, it’s other (non-informed, non-consenting, non-benefiting) people who are exposed to danger and loss. It’s immoral.

  2. lyman alpha blob

    I’d really like to understand this topic better and maybe I’m missing something, so I’m going to jump in again. In Lambert’s earlier piece, I had a comment go into moderation for a while, and I just noticed that it was posted and replied to – thank you for posting it and the response!

    In Wilkins’ piece, I get that he does not specifically mention the term “Precision Scheduled Railroading” (PSR). I had never heard of the term myself until this most recent disaster. But I am very familiar with the corporate concept of cost cutting, as are most people, and that seems to be what PSR is all about. One of the major costs being cut is labor, and too few people working a train leads to huge safety hazards. The article above doesn’t mention the specific term, but it is definitely addressing the concept. I’m not familiar with the group Railroad Workers United, but I’m going to assume it’s comprised of workers who work on railroads, so workers voices are being heard here.

    One related story I haven’t seen addressed hardly at all in NC pieces or anywhere else is the Lac Megantic disaster , where an understaffed train rolled into the town and exploded, destroying a good percentage of the town and ending the lives of nearly 50 people prematurely. While I never heard PSR specifically mentioned then, isn’t that precisely what caused it? Had there been an extra person or two staffing the train, disaster could have likely been avoided. And yet ten years later we haven’t learned any lessons from that disaster and it’s largely been put down the memory hole and we have (forgotten) history repeating itself.

    I can’t read the entire internet every day or even everything at NC completely, so I might have missed something, but the only person I have seen bring up Lac Megantic was David Sirota in an interview he gave. I did think Lever’s coverage of the East Palestine story was good for reasons I mentioned in Lambert’s post, and I thought Lambert’s was even better by bringing additional details into sharp focus.

    I do think it would be beneficial to have Lambert’s piece more widely circulated, but personally I find Wilkins article and Lambert’s reporting and Lever News’ coverage to be very well intentioned and complementary to each other and they shouldn’t be considered oppositional.

    To use a transportation metaphor, if we’re ever going to turn this ship around, we can’t have the lefty circular firing squad starting up or the [family blog]ers win. Don’t let them divide and conquer people. Solidarity!

    1. upstater

      Precision Scheduled Railroading is really a class 1 railroad thing (based on > $900M in revenue). There are only 7 class 1s (soon to be 6 when the Kansas City Southern takeover by Canadian Pacific happens – perhaps next week). The Lac Megantic wreck was on a regional railroad, the Montreal Maine and Atlantic (Wikipedia has a great article; the CEO Ed Burkhardt is comfortably retired as a centi-millionaire). Regardless, class 1s and regionals can be equally draconian for workers.

      The Wikipedia entry on PSR is pretty scant. As Wiki states is eliminates yards and switching in yards and operates trains on a schedule with mixed freight (part of the East Palestine matter). There are far fewer trains and with mixed freight (but much longer and heavier), locomotives, workers, sidings (for passing enroute).

      What has gone hand-in-hand with the vision of PSR by CEO E. Hunter Harrison (the major initiator) is a very confrontational approach to the workforce – management is out in force, harassing and intimidating workers regarding safety rules (i.e., break them to move trains, but fire workers for trivial violations). This occurs because employment is drastically cut and fear is an effective weapon, especially when backed by compliant union officials.

      The role of unions is important… recall the railroad industry was the first industry group of major corporations and employed millions. The struggles to organize unions went on for decades and there were many long, bitter and bloody strikes. While unionization succeeded, it was soon followed by the Railway Labor Act to limit union power. Per Wiki:

      The Railway Labor Act is a United States federal law on US labor law that governs labor relations in the railroad and airline industries. The Act, enacted in 1926 and amended in 1934 and 1936, seeks to substitute bargaining, arbitration, and mediation for strikes to resolve labor disputes.

      What gradually happened to unions in general was a nomenklatura of complicit union officials to maintain labor “peace” and compliance. The IWW organizers of the late 1800s wouldn’t have been intimidated by RLA legalities, but the current crop and going back 80 or more years don’t want to lose the perks. In my decade at Conrail, union leaders were complete hacks. Another factor is railroad employment is so low and dispersed, where and how would RWU organizing take place? Its not like dozens or hundreds of pissed off workers going to work at the same time and place like 1900 waiting to be radicalized. Organizing couldn’t take place on Facebook or using tech devices. The RWU is a good start, but it is unfortunately doomed to irrelevance like the reform efforts of the UAW or Teamsters (I hate being realistic).

      I think Lambert’s criticisms of the Lever are valid… The Lever presents ECP braking as a techno panacea that might have prevented East Palestine (or Lac Megantic). There are 1.2 million freight cars in use with 50 year lifespans. For ECP to be viable, the majority of cars would need to have it and it must be interoperable with existing conventional air brakes. Each car would need a radio receiver of some sort that would take orders from the locomotive engineer. This could be implemented over a decade on unit trains (e.g, oil or coal trains, etc), but it would be many decades for all freight cars to have ECP. If railroads as presently constituted can’t maintain roller bearings, how could they maintain the electronics of ECP?

      Can we see the problem with the East Palestine derailment? If the chemical tankers had ECP stopping quickly and trailing cars did not have ECP and slowly applied conventional air brakes due to loss of air, they would continue pushing the rear cars into the tankers. Remember, each steel wheel has contact with the steel rail of the size of a dime. They naturally will slide, a long distance even with ECP. The Lever ignores this fact, among others.

      Lambert’s contention is the train was too long and too heavy. It wasn’t a braking problem the caused the derailment, it was a failed roller bearing that burned up the axle (“hotbox”). There are no standards regarding on permissible levels of temperature or temperature rise for line-side hotbox detectors. Indeed, Norfolk Southern has priors in this regard where dispatchers ordered train crews to continue onward when hotboxes were detected. Also note the 50 year life of railroad cars and the lack of defined bearing replacement intervals. I do, however, disagree with Lambert that inspection in yards would have identified a bearing that might fail hundreds of miles down the road. Line-side detectors under strict FRA regulations are probably the only way (calling Mayo Pete!).

      The NTSB has also identified that aluminum covers over pressure relief valves may have melted and prevented controlled, “minor” releases of the vinyl chloride instead of cars exploding or having a demolition team blast holes to drain all the chemicals.

      It is notable that the few freight trains in Europe and the far many more in Russia hardly ever derail. They run at near passenger train speeds, 100 kmh and usually are 1 km in length. Russia has far higher density of rail operations and far more freight goes by rail than the US. Many more, faster shorter trains. That works, PSR doesn’t.

      So I guess my point is that PSR is like the Boeing 737 Max. Play footsie with the potential regulator and Congress with lobbyists and lawyers. Don’t disrupt the rail industry’s to decile financial performance (monopolies work!). If the workforce is suitably docile and compliant you can usually get away with murder if you’re corporate person.

    2. Lambert Strether

      > Solidarity

      I couldn’t agree more. Has Lever changed its editorial stance in response to comradely criticism?

      > the article above doesn’t mention the specific term, but it is definitely addressing the concept.

      Are you really arguing that Yves could have covered the Great Financial Crash adequately without using the terms “Mortgage-Backed Securities” and “Collateralized Debt Obligations”? “But her concepts were the same!” Really?

      One way to demonstrate familiarity with a technical field is to use the vocabulary appropriate to the field. When a term as visible and familiar to both railroad workers and railroad managers/owners as “Precision Scheduled Railroading” is not used by those who are neither workers nor managers, one can only wonder why, and whose interests are being served.

  3. lyman alpha blob

    Side note to another comment currently in moderation. Common Dreams used to be my main goto news and lefty opinion site prior to finding NC. Now I mostly only read it when it’s linked to here. I do think that overall they have developed a strong case of the Trump Derangement Syndrome in recent years, but I’d stopped reading them regularly well before then.

    The main reason I stopped reading them is that, like so many other websites and platforms, they felt the need to keep changing the layout of their site to the point I couldn’t easily find what I was used to anymore, and I finally just drifted away.

    I’ve been reading NC for around 15 years now and it has looked the same way every day and I know where to easily find the things I’m interested in, and the mostly annoying and seldom used bells and whistles other sites are so find of adding are non-existent here. I really like that there’s no “like” button.

    So thanks again for all the great coverage and bringing in new writers, all while keeping it simple and readable. Don’t go changing!

    1. Lambert Strether

      > all while keeping it simple and readable

      Dang. And we were just about to introduce infinite scrolling, big fonts, and some mobile-friendly animation.

      I guess we’ll have to tell everybody in that effort to stand down. What a damn shame.

  4. Telee

    The EPA is NOT testing for dioxins which were certainly produced by the “controlled burn” of the derailed cars in East Palestine. Why aren’t they testing for dioxins? Because they know they will find it. This is all about destroying the evidence for the benefit of Norfolk Southern and letting the people be damned.


    and a follow up was published today. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/mar/04/east-ohio-train-derailment-soil

  5. Rip Van Winkle

    So why did the bearing in the hotbox/truck overheat? What’s the inspection / maintenance / repair / replacement protocol on this equipment? Or is it Run To Fail?

    Did the temperature detector data notification on the hot / on fire bearings over the prior 20 – 60 miles through 3 towns go to the locomotive crew or some management office first?

    If it’s Run To Fail and the office let ride (ignored) initial overheating alerts, then some corporate suits need to go to prison.

  6. Rip Van Winkle

    Mayo Pete is correct, derailments happen all the time. Like right now: NFS near Springfield, Ohio. Railcars tipped over in backyards.

  7. Lambert Strether

    I think I need to do a post on how ECP actually work, and what the legislation actually requires.

    Railroading is an incredibly demanding physical environment, and so the word “electronic” is raising its little hand to me and waving.

    Any railroad mavens out there please feel free to respond….

    Adding again one point: European trains, as I understand it, have little slack because of their buffered coupling system. American trains, by contrast, have enormous amounts of slack (good if you want to get a very heavy train into motion, because the train comes under tension from the pulling locomotive car by car).

    From my very cursory reading, ECP would make American trains more like European ones, in that the brakes could be applied all at once via a digital signal, as opposed to sending the signal via reducing air pressure in hoses coupled car-to-car, necessarily proceeding much more slowly, at the speed of air rather than the speed of light.

    What I want to know is whether European-style, slack-free braking would “work” where the train is incorrectly “blocked” (in consequence, naturally, of PSR), as NS workers said the East Palestine train was. Now, I’m sure the claim can be made, “it’s computerized, so any requirement like that is a simple matter of programming,” but I would need to have that proved. And I would also need to understand how legislation required it to be done.

    Please feel free to revise or refute this clumsy exposition, railroad mavens!

  8. JBird4049

    I get the impulse to be as cheap as possible because Profits! is what is important, but railroad accidents can always be worse. Suppose there was another Lac Megantic only this time an entire school? Or what about the shells that are supposed to be sent to Ukraine? I believe just anything that can be shipped by rail is shipped by rail, but the response to East Palestine is to keep rolling those dice?

    We really do need to clean our house and I am not talking about the railroads either.

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