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Railroad workers have been worried about safety concerns for years, reporter says

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Freight rail is generally held up as the safest way to transport massive amounts of hazardous material. It's a highly regulated form of transportation, and yet train derailments happen often in the U.S. In 2021 alone, there were 293 train derailments on, quote, "main lines," meaning not in work areas or in rail yards. Aaron Gordon is a senior writer at Motherboard, a part of Vice magazine, and he wrote about the increasing safety concerns of freight rail workers almost two years before the derailment and chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio. Thank you for your reporting, Aaron, and welcome to the show.

AARON GORDON: Thank you so much for having me.

CHANG: So your reporting has been based on interviews with rail workers, union officials and independent experts, and they all kind of point to one clear reason why train safety is getting worse. Can you explain that central reason?

GORDON: So a lot of this boils down to a management philosophy called precision scheduled railroading, or PSR, as I'm going to refer to it. And it has been adopted by almost all of the major freight rail companies in some way, shape or form. And its proponents argue that it's essentially a way to make the railroads more efficient, to use modern technology to run more tonnage with, you know, fewer workers and improved efficiency. Now, its detractors say that what it basically requires is doing more with less, cutting everything to the bone and padding corporate profits to pay dividends to Wall Street investors.

CHANG: OK. So then in real terms, what are the repercussions to workers of PSR, precision scheduled railroading?

GORDON: Well, industrywide, since 2016, according to government data, the workforce of the freight rail industry has been reduced by 30%. And, you know, the rail companies argue that they've been able to make up for this with process and technology improvements. But I have not heard that from anyone who actually works on the railroads. Instead, what they tell me is they have less time and fewer resources to do their jobs. Just to use one example, on Norfolk Southern, the company whose train derailed in East Palestine, workers used to have two to three minutes to inspect each railcar, and each railcar can be up to 100 feet long. They're inspecting...

CHANG: Wow.

GORDON: ...More than 100 points on the train to make sure that it's safe to run. And now they have fewer than 90 seconds.

CHANG: I mean, this sounds deeply concerning. And I guess a lot of critics are saying that PSR - it's cost-cutting that's leading to dangerous circumstances. How do rail companies respond to these criticisms?

GORDON: Rail companies mostly do not respond to these criticisms in public, frankly. They mostly put out relatively bland PR statements saying, yes, safety is our No. 1 priority. We're concerned about safety. In regulatory hearings, they tend to respond with extremely long and obfuscatory presentations that don't clarify any actual matter. But they insist, you know, the industry is still safe. And it's been very effective. Regulators haven't really taken any steps to try and reinstate some of the safety measures that have existed for a long time or at least enforce them.

CHANG: Well, you have also reported separately that rail route 32N, which derailed in eastern Ohio, was nicknamed 32Nasty because it was so treacherous to run. So given all of your previous reporting, I'm just curious personally. What was your reaction to seeing an accident of this magnitude take place?

GORDON: At first it wasn't clear how severe it was. Freight train crashes are quite common. You know, I have a Google alert set up, and I get one in a notification from some local news outlet every couple of days that a freight train has derailed somewhere in the country. I think more telling than my reaction is the workers' reaction. Absolutely none of them were surprised. Absolutely none of them were shocked. Absolutely none of them were even the least bit caught off guard that this had happened. I think some of them wondered why it had actually taken so long for something like this to happen. And overall, absolutely none of them expect anything to change because they don't think it was actually bad enough.

CHANG: That is Aaron Gordon, senior writer at Vice magazine's Motherboard. Thank you so much for your reporting and for spending the time to speak with us.

GORDON: Of course. Thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.
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