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‘Too Many Holes’: Rail Workers Say Buttigieg Plan Of Action Is Not Enough

Above Photo: U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks during a press conference highlighting the federal government’s investments in infrastructure on January 23, 2023 in San Francisco. Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

“Rank-and-file railroad workers can diagnose and fix the problems.”

“We will believe Pete Buttigieg is serious when he starts talking about public ownership of critical railroad infrastructure and enacting some of our solutions.”

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s newly unveiled plan to improve railroad safety is inadequate, an inter-union alliance of rail workers declared Tuesday.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) blueprint for holding rail corporations accountable and protecting the well-being of workers and affected communities comes after a Norfolk Southern-owned train overloaded with vinyl chloride and other carcinogenic chemicals crashed in East Palestine, Ohio on February 3, precipitating a toxic spill and fire that has sparked fears of air pollution and groundwater contamination.

In contrast to the hundreds of U.S. derailments that go largely unnoticed each year, the unfolding environmental and public health disaster on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border has helped expose the dangerous consequences of the Wall Street-driven transformation and deregulation of the freight rail industry—a long-standing process intensified by the Trump administration and so far unchallenged by the Biden administration.

“Profit and expediency must never outweigh the safety of the American people,” Buttigieg—who has yet to exercise his authority to restore previously gutted rules and was mulling an industry-backed proposal to further weaken federal oversight of train braking systems as recently as February 10, according toThe Lever—said Tuesday in a statement.

“We at USDOT are doing everything in our power to improve rail safety,” said Buttigieg, “and we insist that the rail industry do the same—while inviting Congress to work with us to raise the bar.”

USDOT called on Norfolk Southern and other rail carriers to “provide proactive advance notification to state emergency response teams when they are transporting hazardous gas tank cars through their states instead of expecting first responders to look up this information after an incident occurs” and to “provide paid sick leave,” among other things.

The department also urged Congress to increase how much it can penalize companies for safety violations, noting that “the current maximum fine, even for an egregious violation involving hazardous materials and resulting in fatalities, is $225,455.” As Buttigieg tweeted, “This is not enough to drive changes at a multibillion-dollar company like Norfolk Southern.”

Finally, USDOT committed to strengthening its regulation of the rail industry by “advancing the train crew staffing rule, which will require a minimum of two crew members for most railroad operations,” and by “initiating a focused safety inspection program on routes over which high-hazard flammable trains (HHFTs) and other trains carrying large volumes of hazardous material travel,” among other proposals.

“Each of these steps,” the agency said, “will enhance rail safety in the United States.”

But according to Railroad Workers United (RWU), which focused in particular on the issue of train crew staffing, “there are too many holes” in Buttigieg’s plan to ensure the safety of the nation’s rail system.

“As currently written, the proposed rule could allow for numerous instances of single-crew operations in the coming years,” RWU tweeted. The alliance also shared a letter it sent to USDOT last September accusing the Federal Railroad Administration of “attempting to placate unions, community groups, and the general public on the one hand with a ‘two-person train crew rule’ while, on the other hand, signaling a green light to the industry to run trains with a single crew member.”

The U.S. endures more than 1,000 train derailments per year and has seen a 36% increase in hazardous materials violations committed by rail giants in the past five years.

After another Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed last week near Detroit, Michigan, Sen. Bernie Sanders(I-Vt.) joined RWU in characterizing these daily occurrences as predictable—and preventable—outcomes of cost-cutting and profit-maximizing policies pushed by rail industry bosses and financial investors.

Given the scale of the problems and the slow pace and limited nature of the rulemaking process, RWU recently implored the U.S. labor movement to support the nationalization of the country’s railroad system, arguing that “our nation can no longer afford private ownership of the railroads; the general welfare demands that they be brought under public ownership.”

The alliance reiterated that demand on Tuesday, writing on social media that “we will believe Pete Buttigieg is serious when he starts talking about public ownership of critical railroad infrastructure and enacting some of our solutions.”

As More Perfect Union noted, the six most “urgent changes” outside of nationalization recommended by RWU to “improve safety and stop the railroads’ worst excesses and abuses” include:

  • Preserve the standard two-person crews;
  • Restrictions on train length;
  • Adequate time off for rail workers to mitigate fatigue;
  • Proper staffing levels to allow work to be done safely and efficiently;
  • Equip all railcars and trains with electrically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes; and
  • Implement safety programs that pinpoint hazards, not worker behaviors.

Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) national president Eddie Hall, meanwhile, said in a statement that Buttigieg “is correct in saying that ‘a healthy and well-supported workforce is a safer workforce.'”

“It’s outrageous that 79% of the American public employed in the private sector receive paid sick leave benefits but not locomotive engineers and conductors, the essential workers who keep the supply chain operating,” said Hall. “Many of our union’s general chairmen are currently in talks with the railroads about correcting this safety lapse and injustice.”

The Biden administration and Congress recently imposed a contract without paid sick leave on rail workers who were threatening to strike, and federal lawmakers have refused to pass legislation extending the lifesaving benefit to the millions of workers who lack it nationwide.

While Hall praised Buttigieg for saying that “profit and expediency must never outweigh the safety of the American people,” the union leader lamented that the transportation secretary “didn’t say anything specifically about ‘PSR,’ the operating model adopted by the nation’s largest railroads designed to cut corners and boost profits.”

“I assure you the ‘S’ in PSR is not about safety,” said Hall. “Under PSR or Precision Scheduled Railroading, which in itself is an oxymoron, the railroads have cut the workforce by nearly a third over the past six years. They have reduced the number of thorough inspections of rail cars, along with other service cuts. Under the PSR model the largest railroads have lengthened trains to as long as three miles from end to end and intentionally slowed the supply chain.”

“Railroads largely self-regulate and PSR has led to irresponsible practices at the cost of safety,” he added. “It needs to be eliminated or reformed.”

The National Transportation Safety Board is currently investigating the cause of the derailment in East Palestine. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday ordered Norfolk Southern to pay for all associated cleanup work.

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