Norfolk Southern, the railway company behind the Ohio derailment on February 3rd that forced a town to mass evacuate, had record profits in 2022 despite employee reductions and lackluster treatment of existing workers. Did Norfolk Southern forego safety in lieu of profits?
An informative Twitter thread from Woke Societies features an interview segment about “Precision Scheduled Railroading” with Clyde Whitaker, a leader of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail Transportation Union and Ohio State Legislative Director. This interview took place in December 2022 during the gravely consequential railroad strikes and negotiations negotiated by Joe Biden. See the Twitter clip below:
The name rail workers use to call this system of running trains is called, "Precision Scheduled Railroading". It increases profits for the owners with less inspections and regulations on what is being carried putting everyone at risk.
— Woke Societies (@wokesocieties) February 13, 2023
In the clip, Whitaker is asked about Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) and if it means “shorter staff, longer hours, longer trains, less safety, less maintenance…do I have all that right?”
Whitaker responds “You got it all right…a lot of the derailments you’re seeing on national TV is one of a few things: it’s lacking maintenance on the track where they’ve cut the track gangs too short and they can’t get out to fix it or they’ve cut the Carmens, which is the union that works on the railcars…” Whitaker goes on to talk about a derailment in NE Ohio that was caused by a wheel flange. Fortunately, that one wasn’t severe because it was mainly transporting candle wax.
Whitaker claims that overworking employees in an effort to maximize profits is responsible for cutting inspection times for cars in half from 3 minutes per car to 90 seconds per car.
Issues regarding overworking and understaffing stem back as far as 2017. According to Boston.com:
More than 22% of the jobs at railroads Union Pacific, CSX and Norfolk Southern have been eliminated since 2017, when CSX implemented a cost-cutting system called Precision Scheduled Railroading that most other U.S. railroads later copied.
In an interview Whitaker did with The Holler, he mentions issues as simple as being given paid sick leave, more employees to alleviate overworking and time away from home, and adequate training. Whitaker mentions training now taking 6-8 weeks compared to 26 weeks when he was hired on. Whitaker says:
“We need a better quality of life for our railroaders…the PSR motto…the STB (Service Transportation Board) really needs to step in…They have the power to step in and stop this PSR madness. The customers are suffering as well.”
When asked “How much of this current situation would you say is because of PSR?” Whitaker responds:
“All of it. I mean…since 2017, the lifestyle, its just terrible. And the customers they’re not happy.”
Regarding profits, Whitaker is right: in 2022, Norfolk Southern reported record profits of $3.2 billion, up $385 million from 2021. And overall, 2022 was a record year for the railway with $12.7 billion. That is up 14%, or $1.6 billion, from 2021. The top institutional holders, Vanguard, BlackRock and State Street Capitol, must be pleased with those numbers.
The people of East Palestine, however, probably aren’t as pleased: they’ve been offered, collectively, $1,000,000 among around 700 families or 5,000 residents, or $200 per resident ($1428 per “family”). It is worth noting they spend more than that lobbying Congress.
Residents can also get bottled water and water testing of their private wells to ensure its safe. The contractors testing the water “work for Norfolk Southern.”