Rail companies, profit, and the neglect of public safety

By Ian Ocx, Red Phoenix correspondent, Texas.

On Friday, February 3rd, the city of East Palestine, Ohio experienced the result of corporate greed when a train derailed in the area, igniting a fire that burned tons of toxic vinyl chloride into the region’s atmosphere in what will certainly be a devastating environmental and ecological tragedy for much of the population of the United States, as the derailment, spill, and ignition of the vinyl chloride threatens to poison rivers, farmlands, and animal life. These events were quickly followed by train derailments in South Carolina, Texas, and Michigan, quite literally days apart. This is by no means a coincidence of fate but is the result of rail companies spending years valuing profit over human life and lobbying against many planned safety regulations that would slightly impede their profit margin. 

The lead-up to these devastating events can be traced back nearly a decade to 2014 when oil train spills hit a record level high. In response to pressures applied by environmentalists and labor rights advocates, the Obama administration began proposing safety improvements targeting trains carrying toxic, hazardous, and flammable materials. However, after much lobbying from rail companies and other industries, the improvements implemented by the Obama administration failed to truly combat the problem at hand and focused solely on trains carrying crude oil. This allows for exemptions from regulations for trains carrying other forms of hazardous and flammable materials, like the vinyl chloride seen in the Ohio derailment. Later, under the reactionary presidency of Donald Trump, rail companies lobbied against many of the freshly enacted regulations, and in 2018 several regulations that would have required upgrading to more modern braking systems were repealed.

Much of the United States’ train braking system still relies on technologies developed in the late 1860s. These old designs do not account for making quick emergency stops and often do not function properly considering that the weight load for trains and other technologies have increased since the braking systems’ initial introduction. Many labor organizers and rail workers have argued that the braking system should be replaced with more modern ECP braking which focuses on an electronic signal, versus the currently used air-brake system. The ECP braking would be safer and provide more opportunity for trains that needed to stop suddenly such as in the case of an emergency. However, the accumulated cost of refitting trains with the more advanced braking systems, along with repairing damaged rail tracks to ensure their proper application, was clearly deemed too much of an expenditure. Instead, rail companies refused to invest in safety and chose to endanger their workers and the communities in which they operate. It is also worth noting that Northfolk Southern, the rail company responsible for the derailment in Ohio, initially supported the use of ECP brakes but never implemented them because they believed the cost of implementation outweighed the benefit of their use.

Rail workers last year were planning a massive strike to find some redress for their unsafe working conditions. Greg Regan, the president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO said, “The massive reduction in the workforce, attendance policies that encourage people to come to work when they’re sick or exhausted, lack of access to [paid] leave, the stress that is constantly put on workers because of how lean the workforce has become, it creates a negative culture in terms of safety.” But as the historic rail workers strike was being planned, President Biden and his administration fought on the side of the rail industry and aided in crushing the chances of a workers’ strike and thus the workers’ hopes for better living standards and safer conditions. These actions — directly siding with negligent rail companies — explicitly enabled the conditions which have caused the recent train derailments across the country. They will inevitably lead to even more disaster unless dire action is taken, but the lackluster response from the Department of Transportation headed by Pete Buttigieg once again proves that bourgeois institutions are not equipped to protect workers, their families, or our communities from the destructive nature of capitalism. Only in a society where workers are in control of their daily lives, working conditions, and safety protocols will communities and environments around the country be safe. Until that day dawns, rail companies will continue to prioritize lining their pockets with money instead of the safety of the public and planet at large.

Categories: Labor, U.S. News

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