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Ohio Voters Will Decide Whether Norfolk Southern Can Buy Publicly Owned Railroad

The company behind the train derailment in East Palestine wants to buy the only municipally owned railroad in the U.S.

A derailed Norfolk Southern train car is pictured in Van Buren Township, Michigan, on February 18, 2023.

The company responsible for the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, is on the verge of buying up the only municipally owned interstate railroad in the United States.

One remaining barrier to Norfolk Southern’s $1.6 billion purchase of the Cincinnati Southern Railway (CSR) is the Ohio city’s voters, who will have an opportunity to reject the proposed sale on the November 7 ballot.

Norfolk Southern first expressed interest in buying the 337-mile railway outright in 2021, well before the East Palestine derailment earlier this year brought closer scrutiny to the rail giant’s history of fighting safety regulations at the expense of workers and communities. Cincinnati has leased the railway to Norfolk Southern for decades, and the arrangement currently brings the city around $25 million a year.

City officials — including the unelected board of trustees that manages the railway — formally announced the proposed sale last November, setting off a lengthy process during which lawmakers changed 150-year-old statutes to allow proceeds from the transaction to be used for purposes other than paying off debts, such as infrastructure improvements.

The $1.6 billion from the sale would be placed into “a trust fund of professionally managed financial assets,” according to the five-member board of trustees, which would oversee the fund. The board unanimously approved the sale in a November vote.

On July 13, the board recommended that the proposed sale be placed on the ballot this coming November. The sale must also win approval from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which is assessing the deal and expected to issue a decision by September.

Aftab Pureval, Cincinnati’s Democratic mayor, called the potential sale “a historic opportunity to deliver great value to citizens of Cincinnati and realize a substantial return on the investment and foresight of our predecessors.”

But some local residents have voiced sharp disagreement, suggesting the deal could face resistance come November. Madeline Fening of the Cincinnati CityBeat recently observed that “the events in East Palestine have completely changed the way residents discuss the vote.”

The November ballot language will explicitly identify Norfolk Southern as the prospective buyer.

Emily Spring, a Cincinnati resident and community organizer, said last week that “selling the CSR to Norfolk Southern would not only hurt the railroad’s workers and surrounding communities — neighborhoods historically affected by unfair economic and political practices — it would give the power that we have as Cincinnatians to yet another billionaire corporation that continues to put profits over people.”

“I, along with others in my community, am prepared to block this sale and fight to keep our railroad in the hands of Cincinnatians,” Spring added. “For Cincinnati, for our environment, for rail workers, and for our communities, it’s time to derail this sale.”

Werner Lange, chair of the Ohio Peace Council and a retired educator with five grandchildren living in Cincinnati, argued in a recent op-ed that the pending sale is a “Faustian bargain, one that sacrifices something of inestimable value for insecure material prospects.”

“The CSR is a jewel in the Queen City treasure, and has been so for over 150 years,” Lange wrote. “As the only municipally-owned long-distance railway in the nation, it confers a unique and enviable status upon Cincinnati. It shines as a beacon of hope and harbinger of things to come in an industry increasingly plagued with catastrophic derailments by privately-owned railroad companies, such as the notorious Norfolk Southern.”

Lange cast doubt on proponents’ case that the sale would be an economic boon for the city, writing that “according to recent state law, should there be more than a 25% loss on speculative investments made by appointed financial managers from the $1.62 billion sale price, then the city receives nothing — nada — until the stock market loss is rectified, if ever.”

“Norfolk Southern clearly qualifies as a poster child for corporate greed and neglect of community need, making it unworthy as a buyer of the cherished Cincinnati Southern Railway,” Lange added.

The rail giant’s accident rate has risen three times faster than the industry average over the past decade, surging by roughly 81% between 2013 and 2022 as its profits have steadily grown, hitting an annual record last year.

Like other rail giants, Norfolk Southern has lobbied furiously against even modest safety improvements at the state and federal levels. As The Lever reported in the wake of the February derailment in East Palestine — which is still reeling from the toxic crash — Norfolk Southern “helped kill a federal safety rule aimed at upgrading the rail industry’s Civil War-era braking systems.”

The company’s CEO has also declined to support federal legislation aimed at preventing a repeat of the East Palestine disaster.

Railroad Workers United (RWU), an alliance representing rail workers across the United States, is among the organizations speaking out against the proposed sale of the Cincinnati railway to Norfolk Southern, calling it the latest example of industry privatization and consolidation.

Last month, RWU — which supports nationalizing the U.S. rail industry — adopted a resolution describing the CSR as “an example of publicly owned rail infrastructure in North America that needs to be expanded, not eliminated.”

Matt Weaver, a maintenance-of-way worker and member of RWU’s steering committee, said in a statement that “the rail industry has robbed the American people blind for 150 years now.”

“Millions of acres of land and massive subsidies were given to the ‘Robber Barons’ of old,” said Weaver. “Today’s rail industry is the same, indifferent to the needs and concerns of their own workers and customers, let alone the nation. The citizens of Cincinnati would be wise to hold onto their railroad infrastructure as their forefathers understood the perils of private rail ownership. They would not be well-served by this sale.”

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