Times-Herald (Vallejo)

Ohio train wreck shows toxic risk of ignoring safety


Assembling superlong freight trains and employing fewer workers to staff them works out well for the nation’s big railroad companies. For the desperate residents of East Palestine, Ohio, not so much.

It has been two weeks since 38 cars of a Norfolk Southern train derailed catastroph­ically in East Palestine, a town of about 5,000 near the Pennsylvan­ia border. Eleven of those overturned cars carried toxic chemicals that were immediatel­y released into the town’s air, water and soil — or later deliberate­ly set ablaze in a “controlled” burn that sent a vast mushroom cloud of acrid black smoke into the winter sky.

Since the Feb. 3 derailment, anguished local officials and residents have been seeking answers. Among the chemicals released was vinyl chloride, which can be lethal in large doses and carcinogen­ic in small ones. Thousands of dead fish have turned up in local streams, and the whole town smells like a swimming pool. State and federal officials claim that the air is now safe to breathe and the municipal water safe to drink. That’s a different source than the private wells some residents rely on, which is just one of the reasons we can forgive residents for being skeptical. Some complain of persistent headaches. Others refuse to go back to their homes and are depleting their savings on motel rooms and restaurant meals.

What caused the disaster? The National Transporta­tion Safety Board said Tuesday that surveillan­ce video shows “what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment.”

That is one wheel bearing on one single car of a 151-car train, measuring in total length about 9,300 feet — a mile and threequart­ers — and weighing 18,000 tons, or 36 million pounds.

I grew up across from some railroad tracks and, as a kid, I would sometimes count the cars in the freight trains that rumbled by. I never got anywhere close to 100. Admittedly, that was a long time ago; like virtually all methods of transporta­tion, technology has made freight rail safer and more efficient. But 151 cars?

Consolidat­ion has left the nation with only seven major freight railroad companies, and six of them — including Norfolk Southern — have adopted a profit-boosting strategy called “precision-scheduled railroadin­g,” or PSR. According to a government A report issued in December, PSR involves reductions in staff, longer trains and reductions in some key assets such as locomotive­s.

According to the report, “the overall number of staff among the seven largest freight railroads . . . decreased by about 28 percent from 2011 through 2021” and “all seven railroads said they have increased the length of trains in recent years.”

PSR was at the heart of the labor dispute that threatened a potentiall­y crippling strike by rail workers last year. The employees were seeking what in other fields is a noncontrov­ersial demand: a modest amount of paid sick leave. But the railroad companies resisted fiercely, because unplanned absences due to illness disrupt the PSR imperative of having the minimum number of workers in place to get any given job done.

So now we have longer and heavier freight trains, with fewer people on the job making sure they operate safely. What could go wrong?

Environmen­tal Protection Agency Administra­tor Michael Regan visited East Palestine on Thursday. Transporta­tion Secretary Pete Buttigieg should also go. In overseeing freight rail, our government has erred on the side of efficiency versus safety. That balance must be corrected.

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