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Rail Workers Demand “Immediate Action” From Lawmakers to Rein In Rail Industry

Workers say preventing future crashes like the one in East Palestine could be simple, if lawmakers choose to act.

Balloons are placed next to a sign displaying information for residents to receive air-quality tests from Norfolk Southern Railway on February 16, 2023, in East Palestine, Ohio.

Railroad workers are warning that, if policymakers don’t act soon to rein in the rail industry with better regulations and protections for workers, there will be far more crashes like this month’s disaster in East Palestine, Ohio.

In a statement on Friday, rail reform group Railroad Workers United (RWU) pointed out that the government has determined that the Ohio crash was “100 percent preventable.” The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wrote in a report about the crash released last week that “Every single event that we investigate is preventable,” RWU noted.

RWU called for politicians to take immediate action on the rail industry by implementing new regulations and strengthening existing rules. They say that the industry has continually “prioritized profits over safety” by implementing extreme cost-cutting measures in recent decades while brushing off workers’ concerns about safety.

“Every day we go to work, we have serious concerns about preventing accidents like the one that occurred in Ohio,” said RWU general secretary Jason Doering. “As locomotive engineers, conductors, signal maintainers, car inspectors, track workers, dispatchers, machinists, and electricians, we experience the reality that our jobs are becoming increasingly dangerous due to insufficient staffing, inadequate maintenance, and a lack of oversight and inspection.”

“Railroad workers experience firsthand every day the dangers inherent in this style of railroading. It has impacted their safety and health, state of mind, and lives on and off the job,” added RWU co-chair Gabe Christenson.

The group is calling on Congress and government agencies to require that trains be staffed with a minimum of two people; while there is currently a proposed rule for this, RWU has said that it contains loopholes that can be exploited by the industry, which is fighting against the rule. RWU says that railroads should additionally be made to follow basic safety rules like train length and weight caps, as well as proper maintenance for rail infrastructure.

RWU also called for “ample” time off for workers across the industry, who currently face the “harassment of draconian attendance policies.” The rail industry’s extreme attendance policies were a major issue in last year’s rail union contract showdown and have been a continual problem as workers were denied guaranteed sick leave in the contract that Congress and President Joe Biden forced upon them last year.

“We demand that the railroad be run safely, efficiently, and professionally, and not as some ‘cash cow’ for Wall Street investors and billionaires,” said Hugh Sawyer, RWU Treasurer. “Much of what is wrong with the rail industry today can be fixed easily and quickly.”

At the root of many of the safety and labor issues is a system called precision scheduled railroading, workers have said. Precision scheduled railroading is a cost-cutting efficiency system used by rail industry giants to cut down on labor and costs that workers have said are compromising the safety of rail workers and the public.

Meanwhile, the system has allowed hedge funds and wealthy rail owners like Warren Buffett to boost their own wealth with huge profits for the rail industry — profits made off the backs of rail workers’ labor and at the expense of their safety. For instance, Norfolk Southern, the company behind the Ohio crash, recently reported record revenues in 2022, marking an income of $4.8 billion last year.

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