As Rail Executives Grow Richer, Train Derailments Have Become Commonplace

The East Palestine disaster is a horrifying, spectacular version of what has become the normal occurrence of train derailments in America. Joe Biden could use this as an opportunity to overhaul a crooked and dangerous industry. So far, he appears uninterested.

Higher profits and lower labor costs have coincided with increased train accidents. (NTSB / Handout via Xinhua)

All of a sudden, train derailments are everywhere. The East Palestine, Ohio, train disaster has been the most horrifyingly spectacular thus far, but more than a dozen train derailments had already taken place in the United States this year alone.

The weeks that followed added several more: a train carrying coal derailing near Gothenburg, Nebraska; another chemical-bearing train going off the trails near Detroit, this one also operated by the same Norfolk Southern company behind the East Palestine crash; a pickup truck smashing into a train in New Caney, Texas, sending sixteen train cars off the rails. Maybe that last one doesn’t count, since a truck was the instigating factor. Then again, given how often trucks crash in the United States, especially those carrying the same kinds of dangerous chemicals that were spewed in Ohio, and how much deadlier those crashes are when you stack them up, that’s hardly a cause for relief.

A shocking number of train derailments take place in the United States every year: an average of 1,705, or 54,570 over the span of 1990 to 2021, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. While falling after 2008, the next thirteen years still saw over a thousand derailments a year, killing a total of thirty-one people and injuring 1,759. And East Palestine is far from the first time we’ve seen a derailment this destructive. In the winter of 2002, a Canadian Pacific train carrying anhydrous ammonia, a chemical that aggressively sucks all the moisture out from the human body, crashed outside Minot, North Dakota, injuring more than 1,400 people and trapping residents in their homes, stuck there in below-freezing weather while unable to turn on their furnaces.

Derailments in the United States are a particularly bad problem compared to other countries. While recording 777 million train-kilometers in 2019 (train-kilometers are the measure of a train traveling the distance of one kilometer), 1,338 derailments took place in the country. The EU, by contrast, only saw seventy-three derailments that year despite, by one count, recording 4.5 billion train-kilometers. For Japan, the same year saw more than 2 billion train-kilometers, according to Knoema, and only nine derailments. (In fact, the number of derailments in Japan over the past twenty-one years alone is roughly one-eighth of the amount the United States sees on average in a single year).

What’s behind this? The fact that Norfolk Southern’s accident rate was ticking up at the same time its profits were rising and its executives were assuring investors they’d keep costs down offers a clue. According to More Perfect Union, Norfolk was engaging in what’s known in the industry as “precision scheduled railroading,” one of those consultant-coined bits of jargon that means transporting more train cars and carrying heavier loads with a fraction of the workers. This approach allowed the company to splurge a gargantuan $4.7 billion on dividends and — what else? — stock buybacks, a 4,500 percent increase from two decades earlier, enriching their shareholders.

This was an industry-wide practice, with railroad companies across the board slashing operating expenses while raising train length and speeds, all as share prices grew and grew. Norfolk Southern was just one of the firms profiled by the Washington Post in January 2020 about railroad companies laying off more than twenty thousand railworkers in a year, the worst cuts since the Great Depression, while in the years that followed, operating profits rose while spending on labor plummeted. What seemed at the time like ingenious cost-saving efficiencies in supply chains led to the bottlenecks and shortages that have helped drive worldwide inflation; these railroad accidents are the cost-cutting chickens coming home to roost. Safety deregulation of the industry has only made things worse.

The sad fact is that train derailments (among many other types of accidents) have long been a regular occurrence in the United States — we’re hearing about them more right now because a particularly terrible one recently took place. A competent presidential administration might use this fleeting moment of public outrage and national attention to rally people and Congress behind overhauling this crooked industry. Instead, unless something changes, we seem destined to grow hoarse shouting about it and forget — at least until the next terrible accident.