CINCINNATI (WKRC) - Trains transport billions of tons of freight across America each year and, as the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio clearly shows, some of that cargo is toxic.
Roy Morrison, director of safety for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes -- the union representing railroad inspectors and employees -- is well-acquainted with the risk.
“All the most dangerous things you can think about are being transported,” Morrison said during an interview at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters headquarters in Washington, DC.
In its preliminary report, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) states an overheated wheel bearing on one of the railcars is the probable cause of the catastrophic derailment in East Palestine. Morrison says the rails that trains ride in the US are in trouble, too.
“They're poor and they're getting worse,” he said.
According to figures from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) provided by the Association of American Railroads (AAR), which represents the nation’s railroad companies, there were 1,183 derailments across the country in 2022. Of those derailments, 386 were tied to track issues. That’s a little more than one track-caused derailment a day on average.
While that’s concerning, AAR was quick to point out that track-related derailments have been falling for years. According to the trade group, its figures show tracked-caused accidents per one million train miles have dropped 55% since 2000, an all-time low.
AAR credits high-tech cameras, lasers, and ultrasound equipment, some of which are mounted on train engines to spot issues on the tracks before they become a serious problem.
However, Morrison says all that technology has come at the expense of the employees who inspect and repair the rails.
According to the Surface Transportation Board, an independent federal agency that primarily regulates rail freight, the number of Class 1 track inspectors and maintenance workers has dropped from a peak of 38,618 in June 2015 to 28,615 in March 2023.
That’s a cut of 26%, or 10,003 fewer workers to help keep trains safely on the tracks.
Morrison says this has left the remaining employees spread dangerously thin.
“They're working crazy amounts of hours to try and get all the defects taken care of,” he said.
And he says calls for reinforcement have gone unanswered.
“They're screaming for help,” said Morrison, adding that no one is listening.
When asked if employee cuts have gone too far, an AAR spokesperson said, ‘Railroads have been intensely focused on hiring across their operations over the last year-and-a-half to ensure that they are able to enhance service quality and operate safely,” adding that data surrounding track-caused incidents is “trending in the right direction.”
Arguably, the most disturbing allegation made by Morrison is that inspectors are being told not to report safety concerns.
“They've been told to hold off on writing up defects,” he said, referring to the inspectors he represents.
When asked whether inspectors were being told not to report problems, AAR’s spokesperson responded that she isn’t aware of any such incidents, but said, “AAR cannot speak to any directions that may or may not be given at the individual railroads.”
Like many railroad unions, Morrison blames the pressure inspectors are feeling and the cuts made on Precision Scheduled Railroad (PSR), an efficiency model aimed at reducing downtime and keeping trains moving that was adopted by American railroad companies in 2012.
“They're getting pressure to keep the track open at all costs,” he said.
The Railway Safety Act of 2023, a bi-partisan measure to beef up railroad inspections and raise penalties for safety violations, passed the Senate Commerce Committee on its way to a vote in the full Senate.
“You're not going to prevent every train crash, but you can make them less likely,” said Sen. JD Vance (R-OH), who is co-sponsoring the bill with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH).
Sen. Brown has been vocal about railroads putting profits over safety and says he’s determined to reverse that trend.
“The railroads have had their way for decades in this body, with Congress, with regulators. Those days are gone,” he said.
Until the act passes, Morrison worries what will happen next on America’s tracks, saying, “the rail, as a whole, has multiple ways of failing.”