The Norfolk Southern train derailment and “controlled release” of toxic vinyl chloride in East Palestine, Ohio, was an avoidable catastrophe. Long before the train cars crashed on Feb. 3 and residents’ lives were turned completely upside down, railroad workers had been warning anyone who would listen that the relentless cost-cutting and profit-maximizing practices implemented on the freight rail system by greedy rail executives and their Wall Street shareholders would endanger workers and the public, and they were right. In recent hearings held in East Palestine by the National Travel Safety Board (NTSB), testimonies by representatives from rail labor and even Norfolk Southern itself have revealed what workers already knew: a combination of reckless business practices by the rail carriers, including yearly staff cuts to rail maintenance workers and the outsourcing of vital safety functions to unregulated machines, and lax federal regulation of the railroads has created the conditions for catastrophes like East Palestine to happen with greater frequency. But it is not too late to reverse course and build a safer, greener, more efficient, more humane rail system. In this episode, we discuss the latest revelations to come out of the ongoing investigations into the East Palestine disaster with Jason Cox, national representative for the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, who testified at the NTSB hearings in East Palestine in June.

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Jason Cox:  I’m Jason Cox, national representative with the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, representing carmen on this side of the Mississippi here on the East Coast.

Maximillian Alvarez:  All right. Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you.

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My name is Maximilian Alvarez. And as you guys heard, we’ve got a really special guest on the show today, could not be more honored to get Jason on the show. And I imagine if you listen to this show, you’ve probably heard Jason’s name of late. Because, as you guys know, we have not only been covering the ongoing and long brewing crisis on the nation’s freight railroads, a crisis that has very much been caused by relentless and unchecked corporate greed at the hands of the rail carriers and their shareholders. You’ve heard us interview railroad worker after railroad worker here on the show, over at The Real News Network, on my segments on Breaking Points for the past year and a half.

And you have also heard us talk to residents living in and around East Palestine, Ohio, where, of course, a Norfolk Southern train catastrophically derailed on Feb. 3 of this year. And in the immediate aftermath of the vinyl chloride that was contained in a number of the cars was released and “a controlled burn proceeded,” releasing a massive, toxic black death plume that spewed chemicals all over the surrounding area. We have been talking to residents living on the Ohio side and the Pennsylvania side of this catastrophe. You guys have heard the episodes that we’ve done with residents living in the area, you’ve also hopefully seen the live stream that we did at The Real News, where we brought more folks from in and around East Palestine on and we tried to raise funds to help them get the aid that they desperately need and are sadly not getting enough of from their local, state, federal governments, and sure as hell not enough from Norfolk Southern itself.

We’ve been trying to cover this catastrophe – This avoidable catastrophe, I might add – As much as we possibly can from the residents’ side, from the railroad worker side, and we’re continuing with that coverage today with this very special and important conversation with Jason, who you guys may have seen in the news lately, because Jason actually testified as part of some recent hearings held by the National Travel Safety Board in East Palestine to review the causes of the derailment, who’s at fault, and what could have been done and needs to be done to make sure that catastrophes like this do not happen again.

And just to set the table real quick, and then I promise I’ll shut up and we’ll toss it over to Jason, I just wanted to set the table real quick and let you guys know, basically, what we know in terms of updates on this story since we last checked in with residents in and around East Palestine. And we’ve got three main updates that I’m going to run through today, including an update on Jason’s involvement in the National Travel Safety Board hearings.

But first, I want to start with an update from the beginning of June, the first week of June, because some of the residents that we talked to on the show and at The Real News Network, along with other residents in and around East Palestine, actually went to the Ohio State House in Columbus to once again demand that Governor Mike DeWine declare a state of emergency, that residents get the emergency aid that they are in desperate need of and have been in desperate need of ever since Feb. 3.

I want to read, give you an update on that, just a little report from ABC 6 in Ohio. We’ll link to this in the show notes, but they write – This was published on June 14 of this year – “Residents of East Palestine rallied at the Ohio Statehouse Wednesday, saying they’re frustrated and that their community has not bounced back since the February train wreck. The group, Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment, gathered to pressure Gov. Mike DeWine to submit a disaster declaration before the July 3 deadline.

They say they are here to ensure the right of people to maintain clean air, water, and soil. They also claim the community of East Palestine is still suffering from health issues, and some still cannot live in their homes. ‘I don’t want to leave home. I just want it cleaned up. I want it to be like how it was Feb. 2,’ East Palestine resident Daren Gamble said.

“The Federal Emergency Management Agency said a few weeks after the incident that Ohio doesn’t qualify for assistance. The next day in a joint statement with Ohio, FEMA said it would ‘supplement federal efforts’ with ‘incident coordination and ongoing assessments of potential long-term recovery needs.’ On Tuesday, DeWine said he requested a second 120-day extension from FEMA before the current extension deadline on July 3.”

In case that wasn’t clear enough, residents of East Palestine went to the State House, only defined that Governor Mike DeWine, instead of granting that emergency status that they are begging for, asked FEMA for a second 120-day extension on DeWine’s ability to declare a state of emergency, thus leaving residents in and around East Palestine in another 120-day limbo period. And as folks have been telling us, they can’t drink their water, they’re still getting sick when they’re around the crash site, a number of them can’t return home, and now they have to wait even longer for any sort of emergency response. That is the first big update.

The second big update comes by way of an NBC news report that was actually just published this week by Aria Bendix, we will also link to this in the show notes. And Aria writes, “Soon after the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio, a team of researchers began roving the small town in a Nissan van. It was February, less than three weeks after the disaster, and the van was outfitted with an instrument called a mass spectrometer, which can measure hundreds to thousands of compounds in the air every second. The team was searching for harmful levels of air pollution.

“At the time, a primary concern was a flammable substance called vinyl chloride, because Norfolk Southern intentionally burned off the chemical in an attempt to avoid the chance of an explosion. Some environmental health experts thought the chemical may have contributed to the rashes, vomiting, bloody noses, and bronchitis some residents reported.

“But a new study from the team behind the research van – A group of scientists at Carnegie Mellon and Texas A&M universities – Raises a flag about a different substance. According to the study, levels of a chemical irritant called acrolein detected near the derailment site on Feb. 20 and 21 were up to six times higher than normal levels recorded before the disaster. But local and federal residents had told residents it was safe to return home on Feb. 8. The test results were released earlier this year but published for the first time Wednesday in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters. Longer-term exposure to concentrations of acrolein at the detected levels may be a health concern, the researchers wrote.”

Okay. And then the final update, which will lead us into talking with our guest, Jason Cox, comes by way of The Morning Journal. This was published on June 24 of this year by Stephanie Elver. Stephanie writes, “The National Travel Safety Board spent nearly 20 hours over the course of four sessions inside the East Palestine High School gymnasium analyzing February’s train derailment. The purpose of the two-day investigative hearing was to determine the likely cause of the rail disaster, recommend changes to avert a similar catastrophe, and ascertain what, if anything, could have been done to prevent the derailment from happening in the first place. The NTSB’s findings and recommendations will be released in the coming weeks and months.

“As for the last part, Jason Cox of Transportation Communications Union and Brotherhood of Railroad Carmen is confident he already knows the answer. Cox said, ‘A firewall of safety has been severely compromised,’ as he testified during Friday’s first session that focused on wheel bearings. According to Cox, the 23rd rail car of the train, the one that overheated and likely caused the derailment, did not undergo an inspection from Norfolk Southern using a method known as, ‘Ghost tracks.’

“The term is used to describe trains that do not stop in rail yards in order to circumvent inspection. The derailment’s catalyst car passed by three rail yards without stopping. If it had stopped at one, Cox said the defective wheel bearing may have been detected. ‘There are qualified mechanical inspectors at all these points, but they would not have been allowed to look at that car per Norfolk Southern policy,’ Cox said.

“Cox also reported that the railroad has significantly reduced the time given to inspect trains, with carmen having a minute or less to look over the car. They used to be allotted three minutes.”

Okay. There you guys go. Those are the main updates to lead us up to the conversation today. Residents of East Palestinians still in desperate need of help, still not getting it from Governor Mike DeWine, still not a state of emergency declared. A new independent study found increased levels of a potentially toxic substance that was not being tested for enough before by any of the federal agencies. And we had these NTSB hearings in East Palestine at which our guest, Jason Cox himself testified.

Now without further ado, I’m going to shut up and I want to bring Jason back in here. And first and foremost, man, I just really, really wanted to thank you for joining us. I know that you are incredibly busy and you’re doing incredibly important work over there, so thank you for making time for this. I was wondering if we could just start by first expanding on your intro a little bit and getting folks a little more acquainted with you, the kind of work you do and what it was like for you to get that call that you were going to be testifying? What was going through your head, and how were you preparing for that?

Jason Cox:  Well, I had already knew the material I wanted to testify to. The rail unions have been trying to inform both the government agencies and the public for a number of years on dangerous cost-cutting policies that the railroads were engaging in. The layman’s term for it in the industry is Precision Scheduled Railroading. If you watch the hearing and the graphs, they cut back significantly on the number of inspectors and mechanical maintenance employees. And needless to say, it’s a situation that we tried to warn of for quite some time. Matter of fact, prior to East Palestine, there’s a video that I put out there where I actually warned the public that this was an issue during 2020.

Maximillian Alvarez:  And hook that back for our listeners, because we were talking to railroad workers – And to be fair, we talked to as many as we could, we tried to give people as broad a lay of the land as we could, letting them see that there are a lot of different people, different unions, different rail carriers, all making the railroads run. And you’ve got carmen, you’ve got maintenance of way folks, you’ve got signalmen, you’ve got the engineers, you’ve got the conductors, you’ve got the dispatchers, the machinists, so on and so forth.

I was wondering if you could talk a little more about what the carmen have been going through before East Palestine? Because we heard from different workers last year when we were in the midst of the high stakes contract fight between the 12 unions representing over 100,000 rail workers and the Class I rail carriers. We all know what happened there, with Joe Biden and both parties in Congress forcing a contract down workers’ throats and essentially giving the rail carriers everything that they fucking wanted – Pardon my French.

But we heard from different railroaders what it looked like for them on the job to be experiencing this Precision Scheduled Railroading cult, the cost-cutting, the staff cuts year after year after year, piling more work onto fewer workers, making the trains longer and heavier, so on and so forth. But we didn’t get to hear as much from the carmen. I was wondering if you could fill that gap in a little bit for our listeners and say a little bit about what the carmen typically do, and what this PSR cult has looked like for working carmen on the railroads in recent years?

Jason Cox:  Okay. You touched on a lot of stuff there. You started off, let me outline for your layman listeners, that the railroad is an integral interchange system. These cars go from railroad to railroad to railroad, and that’s how they get across the nation. When you look at the rail system, the quality and the safety of that system is only as good as its poorest actor, so just keep that in mind.

You brought up what Precision Scheduled Railroad has been for the craft. When Hunter Harrison first came to the Central United States, he came to CSX Transportation at the time. I attended a meeting where they talked about this great plan and how they were going to expand profits, and they were going to do it by running the same amount of freight with 20% less rolling stock freight cars. So this means they’re turning the cars around faster.

And this was the first talks of what was going to happen in the industry. And in that meeting I brought up, you’re taking the wear and tear on that 20% and you are putting it on top of the remaining 80%. Have you thought about the mechanical forces that are going to be required to maintain that type of wear and tear? The room went silent, and I seen where things were going from that point on.

It wasn’t too far after that, they started engaging in massive furloughs, putting the craft on the street to the point that what I’ve seen as a craftsman on multiple rail carriers is they were basically running an overtime ratio on top of the inspectors, and up to and in excess of 30%. You have a reduced workforce in the carmen craft, you are working them these expanded hours. And then the final coffin nail is, oh, by the way, we want you to do an inspection in 30 seconds a side on the rail car.

So you got worker fatigue, you’ve got unrealistic inspections. The fact that something happened is no surprise to our craft. We’ve been trying to say it for years. When you look at these types of time restraints and the fact that they vacated a lot of locations of inspectors, entirely relying on the train crews to do the inspection.

Now, the best way I can describe this is, under the regulation when the carmen does an inspection – And I actually held up a pamphlet in the hearing, and it was a pretty thick document, and that was all the technical layouts of everything that the carmen looks at, all the different pieces and components. Well, on the very bottom of the second to the last page, and not even half of the last page, is what is called an Appendix D Inspection. It’s 12 points, and it’s the most basic kind of inspection: is the car leaning? Are the wheels on the track? Okay. No gauging of the actual health of the freight car.

And that type of inspection is meant to be for picking up the car to get it to a carman, to get it to an inspection point. But now that they’ve vacated locations of carmen, this is happening less and less and less. And therefore, this very simplistic Appendix D has become more and more the primary inspection on these freight cars.

Maximillian Alvarez:  To break it down in my dumbass terms [laughs], tell me if I got this right: I saw you hold up that pamphlet, and we just had a great Veteran Engineer, Michael Paul Lindsey, worked on the rails for 17 years. And he talked for 30 minutes about the training that you got to go through and all the operating codes and federal regulations you got to memorize on that side. The amount of knowledge and the protocols that you guys all have to have memorized on your different sides of the railroads is astounding to me.

But then if we add onto that, if I understand correctly, so this Appendix D has the 12-point protocol to follow, to check a car as part of the process of getting a car to a carman for further inspection. But now that boilerplate basic protocol is being used as the standard for car inspection itself, which is just like, I don’t know, you look at the car, you kick it with your foot and you say like, yeah, that looks fine, and then you move on to the next one. How much can you possibly inspect a car in 30 seconds? That’s a genuine question.

Jason Cox:  Our organization, we actually tried to put out a video that shows the two differences from a carman trainer and it is [night] and day. A carman, he’s going to approach the freight car. First thing he’s going to do, he is going to look at the coupling devices, he’s going to look at the framework of the car where those coupling devices engage and the cushions that are inside them and make sure that all those components meet specs, they’re not worn out, they’re not busted, broken, or inoperative. Because when a train separates, the rear end will catch up with the front end, and that will lead to catastrophe. That’s a big deal that the carmen inspect.

Next you move to your trucks, you look at the engagement of the truck assembly to the car body, is that all good? You look across, make sure all your braking components are hooked up and that they are secure, that they’re not going to vibrate loose in travel and cause the type of debris that would derail a train.

And then you’re going to start getting into your wheel. You’re going to look at your flange, you’re going to look at your rim, you’re going to look at your bearing. And when you inspect your bearing, you’re going to make sure that it is properly load balanced and engaged to the truck side, so that weights are not being put unevenly on the bearing, which could cause premature failure.

You’re going to look, more importantly, at your wheel seals and your outer cup. If your wheel seals are greased up, you’re going to take your gauge – Which is only issued to carmen, I might add – And you’re going to give a little pry there, see if them seals are loose. If they are loose, that’s going to allow water or particulates into the bearing and burn the bearing up. Or you’re going to look at the outer cup, make sure that it’s in good shape and it’s not cracked or that the components are not worn to such an extent that the bearing is being allowed during braking application to slap against and engage the side frames of the trucks.

Then you’re going to move on and you’re going to look at your end platforms. You’re going to look at your handholds, your ladders, because all those things are important to train crews. Because obviously a loose handhold when you’re trying to hold onto the side of a car, I think it’s self-explanatory the type of situation we’re looking at there.

And then you’re going to do this on both ends, both sides, and both ends of the sides, and then in between you’re going to look at the braking connections, you’re going to look at the main brake cylinder, you’re going to look at, if you’re dealing with a box car, you’re going to look at the doors on the side of the box car, are they in good working order? Are they properly engaged to the car body? I’ll stop there, because I can keep going on the inspection process, and just explaining it to you, just took me how long.

Maximillian Alvarez:  That’s what I was going to say. For everyone listening, so that took Jason two minutes just to run through what a carman needs to do to inspect these cars. And we’re talking about carmen being given 30 seconds to complete those tasks. And one basic question for listeners, Jason, what kind of length are we talking here for your average railroad car? For people who are trying to picture this, how big is that car?

Jason Cox:  It’s interesting, because it’s historically based. When you ask a railroader, what’s a car length? you could get two different answers, and I’ll explain those. The historical length is 50 feet, because that is the old historical length of a standard freight car. So 50 feet is when you ask a railroader how many car lengths, he’s going to judge based on the 50-foot standard. But today’s modern freight cars are much bigger, they’re anywhere from 70 to 100 feet per car.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Again, it’ll take you about 30 seconds just to walk the length of the goddamn thing on one side. I’m trying to keep my cool here [laughs] because I don’t want to get anyone in trouble. But we also, at The Real News, like I said, we weren’t able to interview many carmen last year, but we did publish a really incredible op-ed, that we will link to in the show notes as well, that was written by a veteran carman looking at these Palestine disaster, talking a lot about the kinds of things that you’re talking about here and saying like, here’s what we go through on a day-to-day basis. Here’s how “Precision Scheduled Railroading” has impacted our jobs and made it harder for us to do those jobs. And I think that that gives a really good additional perspective here, and I’d encourage folks to check that out.

But one of the reasons I bring that up, Jason, is because I wanted to ask this question, and then promise we’ll get to the hearings themselves. One thing that author – Who we used a pseudonym for because of how the railroads are so draconian in their treatment of any workers who speak out about their dangerous practices. I already mentioned, we published our interview with Michael Paul Lindsey, an incredible person, a whistleblower, someone who is very dedicated to the railroads and has worked on them for 17 years, just got fired by Union Pacific for, in my opinion, blowing the whistle and letting the public know information that it desperately needs to know about how these practices, these business practices by the rail carriers are endangering all of us, including the residents living in and around East Palestine.

But anyway, I bring up that op-ed by a veteran carman like yourself because one of the things that they highlighted was the management side of this, and how you get that crushing pressure on rank and filers to do the inspections in 30 seconds, to not bad order cars because you get penalized for pointing out that there are issues that could lead to derailments. Could you tell us just a little bit more about that side, how this regime of “precision” and “scheduling,” what that looks like in terms of the ways that workers are pressured to keep that untenable schedule, and what that looks like on their side?

Jason Cox:  The first thing that you mentioned that I’ll hit on, I believe you referenced a Mr. Lindsey, and the type of situation that you’re talking about there does not surprise me at all. As a matter of fact, I actually testified at the hearing when they asked about carmen being disciplined for not achieving the 30 seconds per side. And I brought up the fact that that is not how the railroad conducts their business. The way the railroad conducts their business to handle that issue is they will find anything else to complain about, and they will use that under the guise to take exception to you.

And what we see in the car inspection world is the people who are known to be your better inspectors, who find these cars, particularly if they happen to be in the outbound train, ready to depart, they will find some excuse to take exception to them. And by taking exception to them, they bring everyone else into line because they don’t want to be next. They don’t want to be the one that doesn’t put food on the family’s table, they don’t want to be the one that, after working 20 years in a craft that they love, that they have to turn around and reinvent themselves. I’m sorry, what was your next question?

Maximillian Alvarez:  Oh, no, just keeping with that, what it looks like on a day-to-day basis, what that pressure from management looks like? You kind of already answered the question.

Jason Cox:  Yeah. And we actually have a video of a Norfolk Southern high-ranking official threatening the carmen with discipline if they did not get their inspection times down. Now, to protect the anonymity of that individual from the type of repercussions that I just referenced, I’m not going to go any further into that. However, we did show it to the NTSB. We couldn’t go much further than that, because again, we’re not going to throw somebody’s career out like that and allow that type of retaliation to happen to our members, you just can’t do it.

And when you look at the type of exhibits that I entered on behalf of the organization at the NTSB hearing, you see emails congratulating carmen for one minute per car, and I produced the associated time documentation that was with that email. And nowhere in any communication have I ever seen where they congratulated a carman for finding a defect. It was always about the times, it’s always about the times. And I also put another communication in that docket where the carmen were getting absolutely scolded because they were taking 45 seconds a side. It’s unbelievable.

Maximillian Alvarez:  And then something like East Palestine happens and everyone acts surprised, and it’s like, well, you shouldn’t be surprised, goddamnit, what do you expect to happen when you are slashing your workforce across the different crafts year after year after year? We all know the statistics: since 2015, the Class I freight rail carriers have collectively eliminated around 30% of their collective workforce. All to achieve that golden operating ratio, lower your operating costs, rake in record profits, and that translates to record numbers of stock buybacks and shareholder dividends, executive pay bumps, so on and so forth.

But that is all money that is being produced by railroad workers that is getting siphoned out of the industry into the pockets of Wall Street shareholders and executives. And it is not being invested in track maintenance, it is not being invested in car maintenance and safety inspections, in proper staffing levels from the dispatch offices to the rail yards themselves.

All of this is contributing to a toxic environment where catastrophes like East Palestine, as railroaders like Jason had been warning us about and warning anyone who will listen. And then we end up with this absolute tragedy where the workers who are on that train, God knows what they were exposed to, God knows what they’re going to be dealing with for the rest of their lives. The residents living in and around East Palestine that we’ve spoken to on this show, you guys have heard firsthand what the hell they’re going through and the nightmare that they’re living through and how their lives will never be the same again.

Even if they get the financial restitution that they desperately deserve, if they’re able to move away from their homes, all of their life leading up to Feb. 2, 2023 is gone now. It has been obliterated. Their lives have been upended, and the best we can do is just damage control at this point. And we’re not even really doing that.

And that leads us up to the NTSB hearings. And I know I got to let you go in a few minutes, man. I wanted to just get your play-by-play on that, how you took all of this and used it to explain, from your view, what the hell happened in East Palestine? How these conditions on the carmen’s side translated to an increased likelihood of a derailment of the train in Norfolk Southern?

I know that one of the ways that companies like Norfolk Southern justify these cuts and these ridiculously short inspection times is they’re like, oh, we got hot box detectors on the rails. Those will tell us if there’s something wrong. And then we find out through these hearings that it’s like, well, actually you guys are the ones setting the standard for those detectors. It’s not a federal standard that you’re abiding by. And also, the signals aren’t even going to the guys on the train until it’s too late and they can’t do anything about it.

Anyway, I don’t want to keep talking. Talk to us about what it was like to go into that environment. How you took all this insight and applied it to the situation in East Palestine, and what you were hearing from the other side, from the Norfolk Southern side.

Jason Cox:  Norfolk Southern, they are extremely interested in technology-based inspection, but you’ve already hit on some of the things I was going to say about that, about the detectors. The detectors are actually a technology that’s been around for quite some time. And the thresholds on those, you are 100% correct, are determined by the railroad. I’ve always said that the detector is the perfect car inspector for the railroads because it has an off switch [Alvarez laughs].

But with that said, there was nothing different that they were doing with detectors than what I believe they had historically been doing. What they had done, though, is they removed the human inspection element from the process. They furloughed the inspectors, and without someone there to catch the critical telltales and having that overall health inspection, these items could not be weeded out.

And that’s where I get in and I make the comment about the firewall of safety. Labor and technology should work hand-to-hand to allow technology to do what it’s supposed to do, which is make the world a safer place. But it does it with us, not without us. And East Palestine proved it.

As far as preparing for the hearing, the exhibits I brought, I wanted to outline the time stressors that I’ve already talked to you about here that I testified to at the hearing. I think the NTSB, because of those exhibits, was pretty well-informed of the big picture. They had also done research from the Surface Transportation Board and the issues of freight rail where they had already known about the severe reduction in carmen inspectors and the number of times that these cars are actually getting looked at.

The inspection system was tried and true and it was working, and in order to make a buck, they got rid of the carmen. And the fact that we’ve proven again and again and again that these trains are out there running with defects should infuriate the heck out of the public. People should be actually scared of this.

And to expand on something that just happened here on July 2, I have been informed that the Federal Railroad Administration just fined Norfolk Southern for placing uninspected cars into the very train symbol that actually caused East Palestine.

Maximillian Alvarez:  So that’s…

Jason Cox:  Not even a [inaudible].

Maximillian Alvarez:  Expand on that, because my jaw’s hitting the floor right now. I’m amazed that something happened here. What does that mean, for our listeners?

Jason Cox:  What they did, so the train comes off what’s called a blind interchange. It comes from a foreign system, there’s no inspection done, and the train comes into Decatur, Illinois. And just like it was testified to at the NTSB hearing, this train is scheduled to pick up a cut of cars that are inspected by the carmen at that location. The train itself sits out there and the carmen aren’t allowed to look at it. That in itself, I believe, is its own problem. There should be an inspection done there. They pick up this cut of cars and they add it to their train and they go on to destination. And as long as they don’t have to pull into a terminal, nobody has to look at this train.

And so that’s what the ghost tracks are about. But in this instance where they got fined from the July 2 incident, they took 16 cars which nobody had looked at, not a carman, not even a train crew. Because the train crew was under the guise that those cars had been inspected, because they’re supposed to be picking up inspected cars. They add these 16 cars to the train, and then these cars get added to the train on the main line, and it goes on to a destination. And those 16 cars didn’t even have the most simplest of inspection processes performed on them.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Geez, man. And I don’t know, I feel like people are… There was a very weird phenomenon that happened after East Palestine, where I think you had a lot of people, understandably, shocked and surprised at what they were watching. And then because the media recognized that people cared about this now, the media started covering more of the derailments that happen. And people were like, wait, where are all these derailments coming from? Something must have just happened to be causing this, or maybe it’s some conspiracy, or what have you.

And I get why people think that. But again, I just want to stress to you that the real problem is that, the media has failed you in this – And I’m speaking as a member of the media – The fact that this has not been on the national radar is, of course, going to make it shocking to people when they hear that we average over 1,000 derailments a year.

Or that when we hear from people like Jason that, in fact, the trains that are zipping past our communities, that we’re sitting there at a traffic stop as a three-mile-long train passes by making us late for work, apparently a lot of those cars aren’t even being inspected and could derail, or there could be real issues that put you, your community, and the workers on that train in jeopardy. And I think that’s what’s really blowing my mind, is more of us are waking up to the danger that we’ve just been living with this whole time. And I think, retroactively, I’m feeling very anxious about all of this

Jason Cox:  And if you ask the train crews, they will even tell you, they do not know how to inspect freight cars, they do not know how to do that total health assessment. Matter of fact, they’re not even trained under the regulation to be able to take exception to certain defects in a freight car. Only the carmen can, only the carmen are issued the type of gauges and wheel gauges that I showed at the hearing, where they have the expertise to gauge these overall health issues. And as I testified to a carman, 3,856 hours of apprenticeship, that’s on duty training in order to become a journeyman carman. Train crews are given a 20-minute class.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Jesus, man. And this really is where the kicker comes in. I know I got to let you go, but one of, I think, the real exclamation points of your testimony was a carman would’ve caught that goddamn bearing. And this didn’t need to happen, we could have avoided what happened in East Palestine if, in fact, carmen were given the ability to inspect the cars that they are tasked with inspecting to the level that they are trained to inspect them at with the amount of time that they need to process all that information and check all of the sides of the car that they need to. Is that a fair assessment from your testimony? Are there any other big takeaway points that you think we should really impress upon for listeners? And what can we do to fix this? And did you see at that hearing any willingness from the company side or elsewhere to make those changes?

Jason Cox:  Going on to my testimony at the hearing, there was a letter put out by the FRA Administrator, Mr. Bose. And in that letter, explained to the carriers that what they were doing with this inspection was not recommended, that the qualified mechanical inspectors should be doing the inspections. And when I reached out to my team across multiple points across the nation, I asked them to show this letter and give me their response. Their response was, this letter does not say I have to do anything. Therefore, Norfolk Southern is not going to do anything.

And that’s the big takeaway here, it’s going to be business as usual until the regulation makes them do something about it. And the way you do something about that is you have the tried and true method: the car inspector put back into the loop of the car inspection process.

What I’ve testified to, and when I was able to show in their docket exhibit one on the last page shows out of place wheel seals and greasy seals and all the stuff that I’m talking about. Let alone, take away the idea that if the bearing is getting to a point to where it is running above ambient temperature, when a carman walks beside the freight car, he’s going to feel the heat radiating off the thing. It’s going to be very obvious. And it’s my true belief that if inspectors were put into a position to look at these cars, even if you prevented one 6:00 news disaster, isn’t that the point? Isn’t that worth it?

The whole reason that the public even knows about the car inspector is because we were taken off the job. If the car inspector is in place and he’s doing the job that he’s supposed to do, he’s the unsung hero, you should never know about him. I guess that’s my big assessment, my big takeaway about what I witnessed. And I’m hoping that the NTSB gives a good recommendation on best practices and we put this firewall safety back in place.

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Ten years ago, I was working 12-hour days as a warehouse temp in Southern California while my family, like millions of others, struggled to stay afloat in the wake of the Great Recession. Eventually, we lost everything, including the house I grew up in. It was in the years that followed, when hope seemed irrevocably lost and help from above seemed impossibly absent, that I realized the life-saving importance of everyday workers coming together, sharing our stories, showing our scars, and reminding one another that we are not alone. Since then, from starting the podcast Working People—where I interview workers about their lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles—to working as Associate Editor at the Chronicle Review and now as Editor-in-Chief at The Real News Network, I have dedicated my life to lifting up the voices and honoring the humanity of our fellow workers.
Follow: @maximillian_alv