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Report: Railroads cut costs, prioritize speed and efficiency over safety

Officials work at the scene of a derailed freight train with no hazardous materials, Thursday, March 23, 2023, in Ayer, Mass.
Rodrique Ngowi
/
AP
Officials work at the scene of a derailed freight train with no hazardous materials, Thursday, March 23, 2023, in Ayer, Mass.

Updated April 10, 2023 at 11:11 AM ET

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

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

Longer trains with fewer employees can transport the same amount of cargo in a single trip as a shorter train would in up to four trips. To achieve this, the rail industry constructs longer trains by using existing cars and positioning engines at intervals throughout the train to move and stop additional weight.

"Other things they're doing to reduce cost is they've dramatically laid off a lot of their workforce," Schwartz told NPR's Morning Edition. "Since 2015, they've laid off about a fifth. And a lot of those cuts have been in maintenance workers. There's fewer people to catch trains in disrepair."

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

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

While examining more than 600 FRA reports from 2005 to 2020, Schwartz says he and his colleagues found nearly 20 derailments associated with the long lengths of trains. Schwartz says that paints a "pretty alarming picture."

Regulators have few long train records

The investigation found that the FRA, which regulates U.S. rail safety, doesn't 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 such matters 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 of doing more with less, Schwartz told NPR's A Martinez the conditions are right for long trains to be dangerous.

"Those dangers are not being mitigated," Schwartz says.

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

"An engineer who drives the train often needs more training to handle a long train. They aren't given that. There's a lot of other requirements that should be met to satisfy safety concerns. But to date, there's no regulation capping the length of trains," Schwartz says.

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

Norfolk Southern dismissed safety alarm

Schwartz says his investigative team learned that Norfolk Southern has a policy that allows a help desk to wave off an alarm from a train crew. He points to a derailment of 21 cars on Oct. 8, 2022 in Sandusky, Ohio, that was preceded by an alert that a wheel was overheating.

"The detector told the help desk, you got a problem here. And the help desk told the crew, continue on. And then minutes later, the train derailed and dumped molten wax onto what is normally a very busy street. Fortunately, no one was on the street at the time."

Schwartz notes that this policy is in line with PSR principles. According to the report, the FRA has stated it does not have sufficient evidence to suggest that longer trains pose a unique or particular risk.

In response to a question raised by Norfolk Southern, reporter Dan Schwartz of ProPublica clarified initial NPR audio and print versions of this story regarding a derailment last October in Sandusky, Ohio. After the train alerted a detector, the company dispatched a mechanic to inspect the train, but the mechanic couldn't identify the defect. Norfolk Southern instructed its crew to to take the train on, and not long after, it derailed.

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. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.