Railroads prioritize speed and efficiency over safety, cutting costs : NPR

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Officers work at the scene of a derailed freight train containing hazardous materials, Thursday, March 23, 2023, in Ayer, Mass.

Rodrique Ngowi/AP

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Rodrique Ngowi/AP

Officers work at the scene of a derailed freight train containing hazardous materials, Thursday, March 23, 2023, in Ayer, Mass.

Rodrique Ngowi/AP

A ProPublica report on an approach to reducing railroad costs called Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) concludes that a strategy that employs longer trains with fewer employees puts profits ahead of safety in the freight railroad industry.

“In the past, about 1.4 miles long train was considered huge. Now trains are two, even three miles long. Long trains are just one principle of PSR,” said Dan Schwartz, one of the ProPublica reporters who investigated the -a strategy that helped railway corporations turn record profits.

Longer trains with fewer employees can transport the same amount of freight in one trip as a shorter train would in up to four trips. To achieve this, the rail industry builds longer trains using existing cars and positioning machines at intervals along the train to move and stop additional weight.

“Other things they’re doing to reduce cost is they’ve dramatically cut a lot of their workforce,” Schwartz told NPR’s Morning Edition. “Since 2015, I’ve laid off about five. And most of those cuts were in maintenance workers. There are fewer people to catch trains in bad shape.”

Schwartz says longer trains tend to require more maintenance because greater stress is placed on more components.

Although the railroad industry says that PSR has led to fewer problems, data from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in 2022 shows that the United States averaged about three train derailments per day .

Examining more than 600 FRA reports from 2005 to 2020, Schwartz says he and his colleagues found nearly 20 derailments associated with long train lengths. Schwartz says it paints “a pretty alarming picture.”

Regulators have few long track records

The investigation found that the FRA, which regulates US rail safety, does not systematically record the length of trains. And states that have tried to enact their own rules have been rebuffed by court rulings that defer to federal agencies for issues such as safety regulation.

ProPublica consulted with experts outside the industry who suggested that longer trains are not necessarily more dangerous. But under a PSR system that does more with less, Schwartz told NPR’s A Martinez that the conditions are right for long trains to be dangerous.

“Those dangers are not being mitigated,” says Schwartz.

Schwartz says ProPublica’s interviews with more than 200 individuals revealed concerns about insufficient training among railroad workers.

“A train driving engineer often needs more training to handle a long train. They are not given that. There are many other requirements that must be met to satisfy safety concerns. But to date, there is no a regulation that limits the length of trains,” says Schwartz.

The February 3 derailment in New Palestine, Ohio, of a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials involved a 150-car train. Federal investigators believe an overheated wheel bearing caused that crash. While the length of the train was not cited by investigators as the cause of the crash, ProPublica says PSR’s strategies still played a role.

Norfolk Southern denied the security alarm

Schwartz says his investigative team learned that Norfolk Southern has a policy that allows a help desk to broadcast an alarm from a train crew. It points to a 21-car derailment on October 8, 2022 in Sandusky, Ohio, which was preceded by a warning that a wheel was overheating.

“The detector said to the help desk, you have a problem here. And the help desk said to the crew, go ahead. And then minutes later, the train came out and threw molten wax on what is normally a very busy road. Fortunately, no one was on the road at the time”.

Schwartz notes that this policy is in line with PCR principles. According to the report, the railway administration stated that it does not have enough evidence to suggest that longer trains pose a unique or particular risk.

A Martínez conducted the interview with Dan Schwartz. Mohamad ElBardicy and Shelby Hawkins edited and produced the audio version. Majd Al-Waheidi edited it for digital.

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