The catastrophic derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3 has devastated the local community and led to a wholly justifiable uproar by the public. The response by federal agencies and the rail carrier itself left residents frustrated and without any definitive answers on how to move forward. What is perhaps most devastating about the East Palestine disaster, though, is the fact that it was avoidable. Norfolk Southern has spent the last five years deferring maintenance, furloughing employees, rushing inspections, cutting corners on repairs, and threatening (and retaliating against) employees who didn’t comply with any of the directives put in place to accomplish their ultimate goal of an operating ratio below 60%. Those of us who work in the rail industry knew it was only a matter of time before a disaster like this happened. Unfortunately, we were ignored, and the people of East Palestine (like, as of this week, the people of Raymond, Minnesota) are the ones paying for it.
I am a carman who has worked at Norfolk Southern for nearly 20 years. During that time, I’ve had a front-row seat to the complete and utter degradation of this industry. When I was hired in the early 2000s, this company was a decent company to work for. Safety was the number one priority for Norfolk Southern—so much so that the company won the EH Harriman Award for Safest Class 1 Railroad from 1992 until the award was discontinued in 2012. In those days, we were paid well and had good benefits, and most of us actually enjoyed our jobs. There were times when we even looked forward to going to work. That’s not something you will hear anyone say now.
Over the past few years, as the Class 1 rail carriers have implemented the cost-cutting, job-automating, profit-maximizing scheme known as “Precision Scheduled Railroading” (PSR), working conditions on the railroads have gotten progressively worse. In a Dec. 2020 Moneywise article, three of the four big Class 1 carriers were listed among the top five worst companies in the US to work for. Norfolk Southern is number two on that list. Just one year prior, Norfolk Southern was listed on Forbes’ top 100 list of the World’s Best Employers. After only a year of implementing PSR, the company went from one of the best companies to work for to one of the worst.
The big rail companies would have you believe that PSR is about improving transport efficiency and running trains on a more precise schedule so that the supply chain runs more smoothly. On its face that sounds good, but in practice there is nothing efficient, scheduled, nor precise about PSR. When it comes down to it, PSR is truly about driving down the railroads’ operating costs at the expense of their employees, customers, and the general public, all so the big companies can distribute even more money to their already obscenely wealthy shareholders via stock buybacks and dividends.
For those who don’t know what it is: the operating ratio is how a company measures the efficiency of its business by factoring their expenses as a percentage of revenue. When they talk about “efficiency,” lowering that percentage is the only meaningful efficiency goal they’re referencing. When I hired on, Norfolk Southern kept an operating ratio of around 76-80%. During that time, they were still making record profits pretty much every year. With PSR, though, the goal is now to reduce the operating ratio to 60% or below. Coupled with the fact that the big railroads received major tax cuts under the Trump administration’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, their already-record-breaking profits have exploded to obscene levels.
In order to achieve this lower operating ratio, nearly a third of the workforce ended up furloughed with no job, and the employees that were left were expected to take on additional workloads to maintain that golden ratio. Basically, as an employee, you either have to comply with all of managements’ demands, or face constant harassment, retaliation, and extreme, unrelenting discipline. For train crews, it means operating trains with ever-increasing and dangerous train lengths and tonnages, as well as complying with ridiculous attendance policies and on-call windows that no one is able to plan for and that lead to, essentially, no quality of life or time with your family.
For track maintenance workers, bearing the weight of the top-down corporate cult of the operating ratio means being rendered incapable of maintaining the track in their territory due to lack of manpower, budgets cut to the bone, and extremely limited track time. These increasingly difficult working conditions have resulted in slow orders across the system (a slow order is a local speed restriction that is typically imposed due to a track defect), which further reduces train velocity. I once heard an old head in that department state, “In my almost 40 years in track maintenance, these are by far the worst track conditions I’ve ever seen.” For the mechanical crafts—specifically the carmen craft, of which I am a part—you’re left with the very real possibility of working 12-16 hours a day of forced overtime on a frequent basis. These long days leave you just enough time to go home, eat dinner, and get just enough sleep to be able to come back to work and do it all over again the next day. Thankfully, track maintenance and mechanical crafts have two mandated rest days built into our standard workweek, which gives us some semblance of rest. Unfortunately, most train service employees don’t get the same benefit.
When it comes to our staffing levels in the mechanical crafts, we’ve been cut to the bone as well. Approximately 40% of mechanical employees at Norfolk Southern have been cut in the last five years or so. Our lower-level management has even said the plan for staffing on every shift is “bare minimum minus one,” which doesn’t leave any room for error when things don’t go as planned.
As carmen, it’s our job to inspect and repair rail cars. But these days, we’re forced to inspect and repair more and more rail cars, at an ever-increasing pace, with less manpower than ever before. We were trained to do this job right, but now we are threatened with discipline, and/or disciplined outright, for doing it how we were trained. The level to which this company has stooped to satisfy its shareholders is, frankly, insane. We, as a country, are witnessing the tragic, cumulative result of all these arcane policies—and, unfortunately, the residents of East Palestine, Ohio, and the surrounding area are paying the price for rail carriers’ pursuit of profits at all costs.
WHAT WE DO IN THE CARMAN CRAFT
When I hired on nearly 20 years ago, this was a pretty decent job, and this company treated its employees about as well as they ever had. That’s not to say we were treated great, but compared to how we’re treated now… the difference is night and day. At that time, I was a freshly hired employee who didn’t know much about the industry. My first day on the property, I watched safety videos and was constantly told that safety was our number one priority above all else. That safety-first culture and mentality was very much the norm back then, and it continued to be the norm for years after that. It is not the norm anymore.
When carmen are hired on, they are sent to a training facility down in Georgia for eight weeks of intensive training. These eight weeks of training were agreed upon by NS and the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen and codified in our Collective Bargaining Agreement as part of a three-year apprenticeship, which includes on-the-job training to turn you into a journeyman carmen. You learn a lot during this time from older carmen who are more learned and experienced in this craft. You’re taught how to properly inspect and repair rail cars in accordance with Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) rules and regulations. They show you what to look for, what to repair, and what to send to the repair track by using a process called “bad ordering a car.”
Most importantly, the veterans teach us to take our time and do this job safely. 20 years ago, when I was in training, the generally accepted time it took to inspect a single rail car was 3-4 minutes per car (MPC), but there were no written instructions or directives codifying that amount of inspection time as the industry standard—that’s just how long it generally took for people who knew what they were doing. Essentially, the view among carmen was, “It takes as long as it takes.” And at that time, we had enough employees to do the job. In fact, at times, we probably had more than enough, and that was a good thing—it gave us a cushion when things didn’t go as planned, when people went on vacation, marked off sick, got injured, or went on medical leave. It also covered us when we ran into unforeseen incidents that are nevertheless part of the everyday operation of the rail industry (such as, but not limited to, derailments, train delays, trains broken down on the tracks, etc.)
Now, things couldn’t be more different. About five years ago, we slowly started to see things change for the worse. It came in small increments at first: It began with management reviewing inspection times and total cars inspected. At that time, they came out with a goal for inspecting cars at a rate of 2.5 MPC. Given that most people needed, on average, about three minutes to properly inspect cars at that time, most just accepted it as reasonable and went on. But the changes, and the cuts, kept coming.
Year after year, upper management would review all facets of repair track operations and, year after year, they would implement adjustments for the continual purpose of piling more work onto fewer people and giving them less time to do that work. That goal of 2.5 minutes to inspect a single rail car? That was cut to 2 MPC, then to 1.5 MPC. Norfolk Southern also issued a standard work document pertaining to inspecting cars outlining how it should only take one minute to perform inspections. This is what the implementation of “Precision Scheduled Railroading” meant in practice for carmen like myself; it also meant regularly receiving threats of discipline if our inspection times didn’t start trending in the direction of their goal.
To justify these changes, upper management would modify its formula for what’s called a “recovery rate,” using different arbitrary metrics to calculate what overhead and labor rates should be, then using those figures to determine how many employees were needed on a repair track. This resulted in most, if not all, repair tracks having positions eliminated through furloughs or attrition.
Similar to the successive, arbitrary decreases in car inspection time, NS also set an arbitrary dwell time goal (1.5 days) for cars that were bad ordered and sent to the repair track (the minute a car is put in bad order status, the clock starts, and the dwell time for that car continues until it is repaired and released from bad order). This dwell time goal then became the most important metric for the repair track, even though many locations had no staffing to speak of on the repair track. At these locations, carmen who worked in the train yard were now expected to work on cars on the repair track whenever possible, all while still keeping up with their inspection work in the train yard. This was around 2020, and every location was so shorthanded at that point that, for the first time in our careers, NS started forcing us to work overtime.
A culture of cruelty and negligence masquerading as efficiency began to take shape during these years, as management was tasked with enforcing and justifying all these corner-cutting, profit-boosting measures. Management made it a point to tell anyone who would listen, “If you didn’t bad order so many cars, we wouldn’t have to force people to work so much overtime.” Another common threat we’ve all heard is, “If you keep bad ordering cars and delaying trains, then we’ll just shut this place down and move the work to a place that will comply.” However (and this is very important), if you don’t bad order a car that later goes on to cause a problem on the mainline, you will then be subject to severe discipline. It’s a Catch-22, essentially. And many carmen were so exhausted and beaten down by this point that they simply began complying, rushing through inspections and only bad ordering cars with the most severe defects.
I know it sounds terrible, but people can only take so much abuse before they give up. Which is why we’ve had so many resignations during all of this. When I hired on 20 years ago, someone resigning from this industry mid-career was unheard of. In the last few years, you’ve had employees with 10-20 years of service walking away in droves, not to mention the hundreds of employees that declined to come back when recalled to service. Why? Most employees just want to come to work, do their job, and go home. However, every time we come to work, we’re constantly rushing from one task to the next without being afforded enough time to complete that task properly. You’re constantly worried about missing something that could, at minimum, cause you to face discipline—or, worse, could end up causing a disaster.
All the while, you as a carman know that, if you don’t complete all the tasks that are asked of you, you’ll be forced to work anywhere from 4-8 hours of overtime. You constantly have supervisors hounding you over why you took an additional five minutes to complete a certain task. “Why did you have so many bad orders?” “Why are you taking so long to repair this car?” “Why weren’t you able to repair this car on the train instead of sending it to the repair track?” And yet, when you do your job and bad order rail cars that need repair work, a supervisor will come out afterwards and scrutinize your bad orders, looking for any reason to assess discipline for what they deem as “improperly bad ordering a rail car.” This same tactic is also employed on the repair track as well. You’re constantly rushed to complete repairs on a rail car, even if it means it’s a subpar repair. Then management will often inspect these repairs afterwards, looking for any reason to assess discipline for “making improper repairs.” Seeing a pattern yet? These tactics are standard now and have the desired effect of bullying employees into complying with top-down directives to minimize the bad ordering of rail cars. It’s maddening to deal with this on a daily basis—and this is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s hard for me to truly convey to you how disconcerting all of this is for railroad workers; you have to see it with your own eyes. These changes to our work and to the industry as a whole have so thoroughly beaten down employees and ruined their morale that I don’t know if it can even be fixed.
One perfect example of how bad employees have been treated by supervisors in recent years happened at another location in another division. According to an employee that I spoke with, near the end of the first shift, the supervisor came up to an employee and informed him that he would have to stay and work overtime. The employee began to panic, knowing he had to pick up his child from school after work. He told the supervisor that he didn’t have a problem staying and working, but that he had to pick up his daughter from school right after work. No one else was available at that time to cover for him. As a compromise, the employee asked if he could leave to pick up his daughter and drop her off at a family friend’s house, then come right back to work. The supervisor’s response was, and I quote: “Your personal life is not my problem. You either comply with instructions to stay and work overtime, or face the consequences of your actions.” This particular supervisor was later promoted and given a division level position where he could terrorize even more people.
The level of discipline and outright retaliatory treatment coming from management, to say nothing of the complete disregard and disrespect for employees displayed by supervisors on a daily basis, is unfathomable. It accomplishes nothing positive in the grand scheme of things; all it does is create an atmosphere of fear and frustration, incentivizing employees to do the bare minimum required of them to get the work done and try to avoid discipline.
Let’s move back to inspection times. As I’ve already referenced, we’ve been threatened, followed around, retaliated against, and severely micromanaged all with the purpose of getting us to comply with their inspection time goals. This has forced us into an impossible situation. One option is to lie on the inspection sheet about how much time it took per car. Some of the few decent lower-level managers we have left understand this and have even asked us to do this just to keep the peace, per se. As was written in a Vice News article in 2021, one manager specifically said, “Please just lie on that inspection sheet. Just lie, write bogus times, to satisfy ’em.” However, if you were to lie on inspection sheets it would come with plenty of risks. If you have a manager that is constantly watching you and keeping track of this kind of stuff you will end up in a formal disciplinary hearing and potentially fired for falsifying company documents.
What most end up doing is simply complying with management’s insistence on inspecting faster, which really means that these carmen aren’t properly performing their inspections. Management won’t specifically tell workers not to inspect cars properly, but they will berate and threaten you for taking too long and essentially try to make you feel like an idiot by implying and even explicitly stating there is no way it should take that long to inspect a car.
By pushing for increased inspection rates and removing certain inspection points, Norfolk Southern has essentially created a recipe for disaster. We warned of this several years ago not long after PSR was instituted. We all stated that it’s just a matter of time before we have an incident like the one in Lac-Megantic, Canada, that happened a decade ago, and we specifically pointed out it would likely take such a disaster to get anything changed for the better. Unfortunately, it fell on deaf ears until now. It’s truly a shame it took a disaster such as the one in East Palestine to open everyone’s eyes to the severity of it all.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO PREVENT THIS FROM HAPPENING AGAIN?
Recently, there was a bipartisan bill proposed in Congress called the Railway Safety Act of 2023; if passed, it would go a long way to implementing long-term solutions to the problems plaguing the rail industry. This is a surprisingly well-written bill that covers many issues that need to be fixed in this industry, including capping train lengths, increasing staffing, implementing stricter hazmat rules and inspection requirements, increasing the amount of meaningful fines and penalties for infractions, and implementing new detector rules. However, portions of the bill are vague and leave much of the rulemaking up to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).
Don’t get me wrong, regulating the industry falls under the purview of the FRA. However, when partisan hacks are appointed to direct and oversee these agencies, we end up with a regulating body that is completely hands-off. The last FRA administrator, Ron Batory, is a prime example of the hands off approach: as FRA chief operating officer, he essentially gave the railroad companies everything they wanted. During his tenure, I was told by a regional FRA inspector that they were specifically instructed to be hands-off in their duties—that it wasn’t their duty to get in the way of moving freight. The proposed Railway Safety Act of 2023 also fails to address an important issue in that the Surface Transportation Board needs more authority to force this industry to do its job in safely hauling freight across the country.
As for current regulations, one other thing that could be looked at in addition to this new bill pertains to the detectors. While hotbox detectors have played a major part in this discussion, there are other types of detectors, such as acoustic bearing and machine vision detectors, that could also help detect issues before they become catastrophes. The acoustic bearing detectors measure the acoustics of each bearing as a train passes over it, and it can work as an early warning system for bearing failure. The machine vision detectors are even newer, and work by using imaging to analyze a rail car as it passes over the detector. Had this detector been present along with the hotbox detectors in the Palestine derailment, it likely would’ve produced imaging showing the bearing on fire as it was failing. None of these are foolproof, I’m sure. But in addition to everything referenced in the new safety act, I believe it would only enhance the ability to catch these issues before catastrophic failure. That’s why I urge everyone to support the proposed Railway Safety Act of 2023. I also urge everyone to contact their senators and representatives and push them to support it, as well. If federal legislation with meaningful rules and regulations for the big railroad companies doesn’t get passed, then anyone’s city or neighborhood could end up with a disaster just like the one in East Palestine, Ohio, or worse.
As of this yesterday, March 30, the federal government filed a lawsuit against Norfolk Southern in an effort to hold the company “accountable for unlawfully polluting the nation’s waterways and to ensure it pays the full cost of the environmental cleanup.” NBC News reports, “The U.S. Department of Justice, acting on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, filed the civil complaint two weeks after the state of Ohio also took similar action against the rail giant.”
Who knows? Maybe this is a sign of things to come. Maybe the carriers will finally be held accountable for what they’ve done to the railroads, to rail workers, to our supply chain, and to our communities. Maybe this will encourage them to change their ways. But I doubt it.