In the late evening of February 3, 50 cars of a 150-car Norfolk Southern (NS) freight train derailed near the small town of East Palestine, Ohio, midway between Youngstown and Pittsburgh. Ten of the derailed cars were carrying hazardous materials, including five filled with highly explosive vinyl chloride. Within minutes of the derailment, flames engulfed the crash site. Residents captured cell phone footage of the massive chemical fire from over a mile away as the entire town was evacuated.
The wreckage burned for three days before crews were able to carry out a controlled burn-off of the vinyl chloride tanks to mitigate the risk of a much more massive explosion. However, the burn-off released a toxic plume that could be seen penetrating the cloud cover from passing jets and was even visible on weather satellite imagery. The radius of the fallout zone is roughly one mile, encompassing the entirety of East Palestine.
While workers managed to avert a more disastrous explosion, Norfolk Southern, the federal government, and the rest of the capitalist class are ultimately responsible for this entirely preventable catastrophe. Wildlife and livestock are already dying from the chemicals released in the crash; residents are being told to return to the fallout zone while the air remains unbreathable; monitors have detected hazardous chemicals in local wells and waterways. From the examples of similar industrial disasters like Bhopal and Hawk’s Nest, we can expect the public health and environmental impacts of the East Palestine derailment to have a “long tail” that lasts for decades.
One of the roots of this disaster is the exploitation of the workers who make the railroads run — exploitation that politicians and the media are doing their best to avoid mentioning. Joe Biden, who overrode the rail strike at the behest of capital, has said and done nothing to address a catastrophe that threatens the health of hundreds of thousands. For our health and the good of the planet, we cannot be distracted from confronting the exploitative and disastrous practices of the freight railroads, which rail workers have been warning us about for years. This sector of workers was ready to strike against these conditions in 2022, and now their dire predictions have come to fruition in the form of a mile-high toxic plume over East Palestine and contaminated water spreading throughout the Midwest.
There Are No Accidents
Like all “accidents” of this nature, this disaster shows clearly how capitalism simultaneously wreaks havoc on both working people and the natural world. Whenever industrial disasters have occurred in the past, it is workers who call most vocally for change, but their warnings nearly always fall on deaf ears. In the lead-up to last year’s strike vote, many rail workers made it clear that such a disaster was inevitable, given their working conditions.
The operating system that has turned the biggest (Class I) freight railroads into a money printer for shareholders is Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR), a set of management techniques first instituted in the early nineties. Rail companies present PSR as a progressive, scientific means of increasing efficiency; but, like all technologies under capitalism, it is in fact used to squeeze more short-term profits out of workers and the natural world, with no thought to the consequences. PSR is responsible for deteriorating safety conditions on freight railroads and the resulting rise in the number of derailments; the central demands of the workers who voted to strike were essentially demands to end PSR.
On its face, PSR sounds reasonable: run regularly scheduled trains longer distances on strategic routes, to reduce the cost and delay associated with shuffling train cars around at intermediate yards. In theory, this leads to train cars laden with goods spending less time sitting in yards or sidings, shortens shipping times, and reduces costs. In practice, it has enabled the bosses to crush and discipline labor and distribute billions in stock buybacks, all while sending the freight railroads into a death spiral. Money siphoned off into stock buybacks is money that won’t go towards deteriorating infrastructure, reducing rail capacity and the rails’ competitiveness with long haul trucking. Clearly, PSR is not actually a way of running better and more reliable train service: it’s nothing more than a traditional labor squeeze.
For workers on the ground, PSR looks like two things: massively long trains, and smaller train crews. These mega-trains are fundamentally incompatible with the system of tracks, signals, switches, sidings, and yards that they run on, which were designed for trains half their size. As the number of cars increases, so too does the risk of derailments, either through the increased possibility that one car in the train might fail — as appears to have happened in East Palestine — or that the difference in weights and momentum between cars might cause a crash during braking.
To make matters worse, PSR “allows” railroads to assign fewer crew members per train. The freight rail industry shed 25 percent of its workforce between 2017 and 2021, citing PSR’s increased efficiency, but the remaining workers are under ever-higher pressure to complete safety inspections more quickly and less frequently. Mega-trains may only be staffed by a crew of two for a 12-hour shift, often through the night and extreme weather — all while under constant surveillance. These workers are quite literally always on call: they can be called up with as little as four hours’ notice at any time, with no paid sick leave and an arduous process for requesting time off. So, as trains are getting longer and more dangerous, railroad managers are understaffing them with overworked crews. Biden, Congressional Democrats and Republicans — including AOC and most of the “Squad” — voted to force through a contract with no paid sick leave, let alone the guardrails on PSR that workers were demanding.
And who pays the price for these “efficiencies” when the inevitable happens? Declining safety standards can have deadly consequences for train crews, and for towns like East Palestine. The conditions of workers’ safety and control are directly connected to the safety of countless towns like East Palestine all along the rail network. As one rail worker wrote in a letter from February 2022 imploring the Surface Transportation Board to enforce safety standards and end PSR:
Shareholders roll the dice with communities, cities and the environment daily. They don’t live here. Trains have more than doubled in length. Imagine a train 16,400 feet in length weighing 17,500 tons: that is three miles, 560 feet and 35 million pounds. One train. And it is hauling hazmat, tanks of say, chlorine gas, or anhydrous ammonia.
Another wrote evocatively of the state of mental distress that PSR triggers even in seasoned workers:
Waiting for that call to run a 16,450-foot PSR train is dreadful: we all know what can happen at any moment. A pallor of dread for 12 to more than 17 hours awaits. These trains are not already big enough for the carrier. We must pick up more cars for the PSR dream, with a conductor 13,800-feet away, reversing into a rail yard for more cars.
Although federal freight regulators understand the dangers of current operating practices, they have been lax in attempting to end or even mitigate them. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Rail Administration (FRA), have dropped proposed rules that would modernize the nation’s antiquated rail infrastructure, which could have lessened the severity of the East Palestine disaster. Partially in response to a similar derailment in New Jersey in 2012 that released 23,000 gallons of vinyl chloride, the same toxic chemical ignited in East Palestine, the Obama administration proposed new rules to update the nation’s Civil War-era braking system. The requirement to equip trains with Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brakes was quickly watered down through lobbying — by NS and others — until being thrown out by the Trump administration. The Biden administration has not attempted to revive them.
Workers have been sounding the alarm about disasters like East Palestine, but the safety of workers, communities, or the natural world is not the capitalists’ concern. The cost of an occasional lawsuit, cleanup, or payout is chump change next to the windfall profits they have seen since the implementation of PSR. NS bought back $10 billion in stocks in 2022, but could only scrounge up a $25,000 “donation” to East Palestine: an insulting $5 per resident.
Workers Should Run the Railroads
When railroad workers voted to go on strike in 2022, they were voting to end PSR as we know it. By crushing the strike and undemocratically imposing a contract, Joe Biden, AOC, and Congress took the side of the bosses, ensuring that PSR will continue as is, all but guaranteeing that disasters like East Palestine will continue to happen.
The paltry concession of a few sick days, even if it had passed, would not have addressed workers’ central concerns: they need normal schedules, safe and modernized infrastructure, and sustainable staffing. They need an end to three-mile long, 35 million ton trains that block traffic for hours because they don’t fit onto sidings. The scale of this disaster and the structural failures that underpin it make it clear that capitalists should not be in charge of this system. Workers on the railroads best understand the interrelated costs and benefits of planning, operational, and management decisions. Workers understand the environmental risks; they live in the communities that experience the fall-out first hand; they are on the front line of accidents and the dangerous clean-ups that follow. Shouldn’t they decide how the railroads should run?
Beyond just avoiding future disasters, a huge investment in the capacity and reach of rail freight is a prerequisite of any serious decarbonization plan, since shipping goods with even the dirtiest diesel locomotives emits dramatically less greenhouse gasses than trucking. Under worker control, investments in modernized infrastructure and practices that workers know would improve on-time performance, reliability, and speed could actually be used to grow rail’s capacity to move goods and people without sacrificing safety. This demand cannot be one made by rail workers alone: as toxic chemicals settle over East Palestine, it is clear that the environmental movement needs to take up the demands of workers in freight rail and other strategic industries.
Following the vote to crush the strike, railroaders and many on the Left called for nationalization of the railroads. The railroads are a critical tool in the fight to decarbonize transportation; they must be expropriated from the capitalists with all due urgency. In their recent efforts to squeeze rail workers and quash regulation, capitalists have shown that they are not interested in making the railroads safe or more sustainable. Even though the railroads have been stripped of much of their value, there’s no reason to think their owners will give them up without a fight. Workers must prepare to fight and strike to nationalize the rails.
To achieve true wins for workers and the climate, however, nationalization means putting the railroads under the control of the workers who make them run, not the government that broke their strike. Trump, Biden, and other bourgeois administrations — Right and Left alike — have shown repeatedly that they are not on the side of workers or communities like East Palestine. They have stood with NS and the other Class I railroads, ignoring workers’ warnings and demands. The Democrats and Republicans have differences, to be sure, but both are parties of capital: defenders of class relations and midwives of economic growth. Even Democrats like Joe Biden who posture as being pro-labor will not hesitate to break a strike that poses a threat to capitalist profits: this is why Democrats joined Republicans to impose a contract when workers threatened to shut down the rails. Under their control, capitalist interests will always win out over workers’ rights and over the urgent need to address the climate crisis. Recall how Reagan broke the PATCO strike in 1981. What would the Biden administration or any other capitalist administration do if rail workers struck for Black lives, or for the environment, or against Cop City, which NS is funding? And yet, this is exactly the type of action, both strategic and militant, the climate movement requires. All this points to the need for class independence in both our workplace struggles and in our climate politics.
Railroad workers, the climate movement, and the labor movement need to organize and strike together to build an independent power capable of pulling capitalism up by its roots, using the tools of the working class, with full knowledge that any bourgeois administration will fight tooth and nail on behalf of the capitalists they represent. Reforms like safety standards and paid sick leave are good for workers, and should be fought for — with no inch of ground ceded — and they should be the building blocks for a fight for the power workers have over what they move and how they move it. Only when workers, who are on the front lines of the responses to environmental disasters, have control, will we be able to avert disasters like East Palestine.