82°
UMass Boston's independent, student-run newspaper

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The recent train disaster is a warning to us all

Image+of+Two+train+tracks+stretch+towards+the+downtown+skyline.+Photo+by+Saichand+Chowdary+%28He%2FHim%29+%2F+Mass+Media+Contributor.%26%23160%3B

Image of Two train tracks stretch towards the downtown skyline. Photo by Saichand Chowdary (He/Him) / Mass Media Contributor. 

As many of you might have learned, a train carrying large amounts of vinyl chloride and other toxic chemicals derailed and crashed in East Palestine, Ohio on Feb. 3 [1]. Over the past two and a half weeks or so, media outlets have released a steady stream of media capturing the horrifying effects, such as images of billowing, black smoke towering over the town, stories of animals getting sick and dying in the area [2], and accounts of people feeling burning sensations in their eyes and throat [3]. There are also potentially devastating effects on rivers [4] and soil as well. It’s likely that local bird populations are not doing well.
The railroad company responsible—Norfolk Southern—has been conducting air and water tests in conjunction with local health organizations and the local and federal Environmental Protection Agency [5]. To date, they claim that no vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride—which is released by burning vinyl chloride [1]—has been detected in homes [6]. Evidently—since the people that were evacuated from their homes were told that it is safe to come back [1]—the other chemicals that are being monitored [7] have not been deemed high enough to be a concern [1].
“So, why should I care about any of this?” you may be asking. I’ll tell you.
How many of you live near freight railroad tracks? How many of you have loved ones who do? How many of you have loved ones who work for a freight railroad? I’m willing to bet that a lot of you will raise your hand in response to one of these questions. While we don’t have many freight lines around the Boston area, we certainly do out west in areas like Worcester. And with the economy like it is, areas with loud, dirty freight lines running through them will probably see a lot of people our age moving into them as housing prices skyrocket elsewhere.
Proximity to freight lines matters. Trains carry a lot of hazardous materials, so being close to freight lines means being close to a lot of dangerous chemicals. Those chemicals can easily leech into the depths of groundwater or be released into the atmosphere after a derailment or crash. Thankfully, the air close to the ground in East Palestine seems to be free of any concerning amounts of immediately dangerous chemicals [6]. Still, concerns are growing about the drinking water, and residents are being told to drink bottled water for the time being [8].
So, you see, train disasters are not some far away concern, and they can readily affect the health and safety of people nearby. They may even be a prescient concern for many of you or your loved ones. Not only do incidents like this affect rail workers, but they affect people simply living their lives near rail lines.
Now, I want to be absolutely clear. The East Palestine derailment is indeed a disaster, but it is not a worst-case scenario by any means. Media outlets have been veering into sensational fear mongering about the fallout, and social media has been completely out-of-sorts. The truth is that this is not an “American Chernobyl,” as some are calling it, or even an American Bhopal. The air indeed seems to be safe to breathe at this moment in time. The concern about the drinking water seems to lie in a simple abundance of caution.
Yet, this horrible situation is indicative of a larger issue. The longer this issue persists, the more we risk train disasters that are even worse than what we are seeing here. That issue is called Precision Scheduled Railroading.
For decades, railroaders warned that disasters like this would become more and more common due to a management strategy called Precision Scheduled Railroading or PSR. Over the years since it was first introduced by Hunter Harrison in the early ’90s, the majority of major railroads have adopted this system.
PSR is essentially an attempt to deliver maximized profits for private shareholders and hedge funds—who own massive stakes in the major railroad companies of North America—at the cost of workers and safety. It features decreased safety measures, longer trains that are run faster, shrinking crew sizes, massive layoffs and more [9]. The idea is to minimize operating ratios, move goods fast, and “cut the fat” so-to-speak. The less money they need to spend running the railroads, the better their profit margin.
To date, it has been difficult to determine if derailments have been more common since PSR was introduced [9]. Some reports suggest that transporting hazardous material by train is the safest method of doing so and is actually getting safer [10]. However, the horrible safety standards of PSR continue to be worrying. East Palestine is a perfect example of why.
Preliminary inquiries show that one of the train cars was having some sort of malfunction 20 miles ahead of East Palestine, with flames or sparks shooting out from the wheel area [11]. While this hasn’t been confirmed to be the cause of the derailment, it seems very likely that it was at least a major contributing factor. As someone with a fair bit of insight into the rail industry who has talked to railroaders about such issues, I can confidently point to this as a direct consequence of PSR.
You see, the massive layoffs included a lot of carmen; workers who, in part, conduct safety inspections on train cars while in the yards. On top of these layoffs, safety inspection time has been lowered significantly in an effort to reduce the “dwell time” of cars in yards—PSR is all about speed. So, there are fewer safety inspectors doing more work and spending less time inspecting each car. Broken wheel bearings or issues with brake pipes—which can cause flying flames and sparks coming out of locked-up wheelsets—can be very easily missed in this case.
What’s more, there has been some talk amongst railroaders that a reduced number of “hotbox detectors” contributed to the crash. Hotbox detectors are a type of defect detector which scan for overheating wheel bearings, among other things. Evidently, in recent years, railroads have begun removing these detectors, thereby extending the distance between them.
So, what’s the takeaway here?
It’s very simple; the reckless, crony capitalism of railroad corporations is threatening the health and safety of not only its workers, but of all of us—not to mention environmental destruction. As I said before, most of you either have or will have some connection to freight railroading. It’s a massive industry with nearly 140,000 miles of railroad track across the U.S [12]. You can’t escape it.
Just last semester, railroad workers were protesting just outside of JFK Library down the street. They were angry that the Biden administration was railroading through a terrible union deal that didn’t meet workers’ demands. While their demands were for better wages and sick days, their anger and their plight stemmed from the horrible, dangerous and abusive practices of PSR.
This is an issue that touches us right on our doorstep. Many of the railroaders there might have been your neighbors. If you or your loved ones ever move near railroad tracks, the issue will be at home. This isn’t something we can just ignore because it seems a thousand miles away.
Railroads are playing a dangerous game. Their high risk, high reward strategy, as one commenter on a news story put it, has “socialized the risk and privatized the reward” [13]. Serious regulation has to be introduced to railroads now. Or, perhaps, a nationalized railroad like Conrail needs to come back. Either way, the safety and health of people must come before profit.
[1]https://www.npr.org/2023/02/14/1156567743/health-east-palestine-ohio-train-derailment-chemicals
[2]https://www.wkbn.com/news/local-news/east-palestine-train-derailment/health-concerns-mounting-as-animals-become-sick-after-train-derailment/
[3]https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2023/02/12/east-palestine-ohio-derailment-residents/
[4]https://www.wkbn.com/news/local-news/east-palestine-train-derailment/officials-speak-on-dead-fish-following-train-derailment/
[5]https://finance.yahoo.com/news/norfolk-southern-assistance-east-palestine-203900761.html
[6]https://response.epa.gov/site/site_profile.aspx?site_id=15933
[7] chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://response.epa.gov/sites/15933/files/FINAL%20East%20Palestine%20Train%20Derailment%20Air%20Monitoring%20FAQ%202.9.23.pdf
[8]https://www.wyso.org/2023-02-14/ohio-officials-say-air-quality-in-east-palestine-is-fine-but-not-to-drink-the-water
[9]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7KhnwhCWOo8
[10]https://railroads.dot.gov/program-areas/hazmat-transportation/hazardous-materials-transportation
[11]https://www.axios.com/2023/02/13/what-we-know-about-ohio-train-derailment
[12]https://www.aar.org/data-center/railroads-states/#:~:text=In%20a%20typical%20year%2C%20U.S.,nearly%20140%2C000%2Dmiles%20of%20track.
[13]https://www.reddit.com/r/Damnthatsinteresting/comments/112vy9q/comment/j8mp63y/?utm_source=share&utm_medium=web2x&context=3

About the Contributor
James Cerone, Opinions Editor