In the 2016 election cycle, the rail industry poured more than $6 million into G.O.P. campaigns. Their generosity paid off. The Trump Administration repealed a train-braking safety rule which required all cars carrying oil and flammable materials to be equipped with electronically controlled brakes. Regardless, although intended to reduce the risk of train derailments and explosions, the rule was still too weak – it would not have prevented the East Palestine accident because the train was only pulling 20 rail cars of hazardous material, which doesn’t meet the threshold requirement to install the brakes.
The rail industry also introduced a strategy called "precision scheduled railroading," which increasingly meant monster trains that don’t work well with our current rail infrastructure. Workers warned that the strategy, and the understaffing, could jeopardize safety and maintenance. Meanwhile, rail company owners took home $200 billion in stock buybacks and dividends while reducing the workforce by nearly 30 percent. Norfolk Southern alone took home $10 billion in stock buybacks and reported $3.2 billion in profits last year.
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw is said to earn $4.5m a year and owns more than 20 properties across Georgia and Virginia. East Palestine area residents were initially offered direct payments of $1,000 each after the derailment. Under pressure, the company has recently offered to create a medical compensation fund and a property assurance program for residents.
In the meantime, railroad employees have struggled. Three-mile-long trains are not uncommon, operated usually by two employees, who can be disciplined for missing work for funerals or doctor’s appointments. When trains break down, they must walk – sometimes miles in any weather – to manage the issues. But unions have had to fight for even two people on these trains. New rules would mandate it, a requirement opposed by the rail industry.
Rail companies have fought for years against better regulations during transport. That might be why there are 1,700 train derailments annually in the U.S. on average, according to the Bureau of Transportation. In 2021, there were 1,087 derailments nationwide, of which 25 were reportable hazardous materials incidents. Advocates have been demanding a safer and more modern rail system for years. The story of the most recent rollback of safety regulations in 2018 is chilling indeed. In the month after the derailment, another Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed in the downriver area in Michigan and another in Ohio.