Happening Now

Class Is, It’s Time to Talk

February 17, 2023

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

Lousy on-time performance. Skeleton crews. Angry shippers. Helpless Amtrak passengers. 1,000 derailments every year. And now, the small town of East Palestine, Ohio joins places like Mosier, Ore., Fayette County, West Virginia, and Lac-Mégantic in Quebec, as synonyms for freight-rail disasters.

The Feb. 3 derailment of 38 cars of a 1.7-mile long Norfolk-Southern freight train – leading to an intense multi-day chemical fire, evacuations of residents, and days of hazardous conditions for residents and responders alike – is somehow focusing political attention on some long-standing problems in a way that many previous incidents have not.

And in our view, it’s about time.

It seems that whenever there’s a choice between saving a little money and doing the right thing for customers or the general public, more often than not the freight rail industry opts for saving money. Made a profit? We could invest it in making the railroad more fluid with more capacity and sidings...or we could pay out bonuses to executives and stockholders. Building trains? Well, we can run more trains to more places to take better care of our shippers...or we can run thinly staffed three-mile long trains that frustrate shippers, clog up passenger traffic, and exhaust our small number of remaining employees. Better braking technology? Sure, we could adopt electronic braking to stop trains more effectively or in a shorter distance...but we could also not spend that money and instead give it to our executives and stockholders.

Steve Ditmeyer, a long-time friend of your Association and a former top Federal Railroad Administration official, noted last week that electronically controlled pneumatic brakes, or ECP brakes, could have made the Ohio wreck less severe. But the Class Is spent a lot of time and money lobbying against rules that would have required them. Evidently sending every resident of Palestine, Ohio, a $1,000 check as a downpayment on whatever settlement is to come is cheaper than just doing the right thing and moving beyond the 100-year-old braking technology we use today to keep thousands of communities safe as hazardous materials roll through their towns.

It's another indictment of Precision Scheduled Railroading, which we all know is neither precise nor scheduled. The relentless push to strip costs out of operating freight trains has gone far beyond sound business practices.

Instead, PSR cut crews to levels below what’s needed for safe operation, sidestepped any investment that might make things safer, and created an operating model whose three-mile long behemoths are incompatible with the legal obligations Class I railroads have to ensure that passenger trains can run on their tracks without undue delays.

(And yes, that obligation has never gone away. It’s the price they paid – and continue to owe – to you and me for the taxpayer-funded bailout of the railroads in 1971 when Amtrak was created to relieve them of their common-carrier duty under law.)

Ohio’s Governor, Mike DeWine, a Republican, and Pennsylvania’s new Governor, Democrat Josh Shapiro, are on the same side of this issue, demanding that we start regulating trains like this as hazmat trains and looking harder at ways to improve their safety. Rep. Ilhan Omar, the Minnesota Democratic congresswoman, Tweeted after the wreck that “we need Congressional inquiry and direct action from @PeteButtigieg to address this tragedy.” Sen. Ted Cruz, the pugnacious Texas Republican, instantly Tweeted back that he “fully agreed.” I'll wait for you to let that sink in.

That kind of broad bipartisan agreement should tell you that we’ve reached an inflection point in how we treat all of the consequences of Precision Scheduled Railroading and the profits-first, customers-last mindset dominating freight rail boardrooms today.

The Trump Administration used a cost-benefit study to sandbag any attempt at mandating ECP braking. Maybe it’s time to revisit that study so that we can untie the Federal Railroad Administration’s hands in the name of public safety and health. And maybe it’s also time for the Class Is to recognize that PSR needs to go away for the long-term good of their industry, as well as the shippers and passenger rail operators they serve.