President Joe Biden and Congress broke railroad workers’ attempt to strike over job conditions and safety last year. Since then, an avalanche of new train accidents has exposed long-standing threats to public safety, the environment, and railroad workers themselves.
Workers maintain that these calamities are totally preventable by running fewer train cars and hiring additional staff. But railroad companies have, without operators’ consent, force-marched too few workers on too long trains, with too heavy and seriously dangerous cargo.
Derailments escalate and safety worsens. In an interview, this reporter spoke with Mark Burrows, a Chicago-based railroad employee and member of Railroad Workers United (RWU), a cross-union, rank-and-file caucus open to members of all rail crafts and unions in the railroad industry. Burroughs explained that “trains are, mile for mile, safer than trucks and have a lower carbon footprint for transporting freight. But the elimination of safety rules, no track maintenance, and cutting staff to a single worker on trains — the engineer — have been causing problems for years.”
It took the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3, 2023 — dumping toxic chemicals into the nearby river and making half the population homeless — to force the issue of freight rail safety onto the nightly news.
Workers this writer spoke to all emphasized that the lack of a caboose and its conductor was central to this derailment, and to many others recently, because it delays notifying the engineer in time to stop the train.
And to make company-imposed, impossible deadlines, engineers are often forced to work 12-hour days, alone, with no breaks.
Allies in the fight. Native American nations, environmental organizations and militant unionists from multiple trade unions have joined the fight against billionaire-owned railroad companies.
In Washington state, BNSF railroad has had a lease agreement with the Swinomish tribe since 1991 that limits trains to 25 cars per day and requires that the tribe be told the nature and identity of the cargo. But on March 16, two BNSF engines pulling 100 cars derailed and dumped 3100 gallons of diesel fuel near Padilla Bay. The tribe sued the railroad for fraud and carrying banned diesel fuel over tribal land. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Lasnik ruled that the railway illegally decided to increase the number of trains and cars crossing the reservation without the tribe’s consent. “BNSF,” he said, “willfully, consciously and knowingly exceeded the limitations on its right of access … in pursuit of profits.”
Railworker Burrows maintains these disasters are the direct result of longer and longer trains, elimination of staff, and inadequate maintenance of trains and tracks. He remembers trains no longer than 100 cars, with four qualified staff: an engineer, a conductor, and two others. But even one hundred cars were a rarity. Plus, staff worked 8-hour days with breaks.
Some logical solutions. Railroad disasters will only get worse with a government that kowtows to big business prioritizing gross profits. RWU maintains that the only way to fix this is to nationalize the tracks and the trains, taking them out of the hands of private owners. That way freight can be transported safely on fully staffed trains with well-rested crews, running on safely maintained rails, with no more than 100 cars.
Further, Burrows thinks that the trains should be controlled by the workforce, and the communities with stakes in public safety such as the tribes, towns like East Palestine, and all the farmers and cities along the Mississippi and other train routes.
The environment, the railroad workforce, and the general public all have a big stake in dependable, safe, not-for-profit railroads.
“Rail infrastructure is too vital to stay in private hands.” — Paul Lindsey, Idaho-based railroad worker and locomotive engineer