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Train Derailment in Metro Detroit Illustrates That Capitalist Control of the Railroads Is Fundamentally Unsafe

With the capitalists in control of the railroads, they will destroy the environment and poison and kill workers. The catastrophe in East Palestine will not be the last if we don’t nationalize our railroads and put the safety of people and the environment over profit.

Emma Boyhtari

February 28, 2023
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Andy Morrison, The Detroit News

In the early morning of February 16, another train derailed in Van Buren Township, Michigan, in Metro Detroit, an area of over 5 million people. The train belonged to Norfolk Southern, the same company responsible for the spill in East Palestine, Ohio. No hazardous materials are reported to have leaked. Michigan congresswoman Debbie Dingell, who voted to squash the rail workers’ strike, said in a statement that one of the railcars contained hazardous material, but it was away from the area of the train that derailed. The car contained liquid chlorine, and in the photo above, you can see how close the crash was to the Huron River, a large source of drinking water for the city of Ann Arbor, home to almost 123,000 residents. The river is also linked to the Detroit River, Detroit’s source of drinking water. Detroit is home to roughly 700,000 people, while millions more throughout Southeast Michigan receive their water through its infrastructure. Yet another environmental catastrophe was narrowly avoided. Though the cause of this derailment is still unknown (the investigation is “active and ongoing”), even Dingell is demanding answers. In a letter to the company, she said she found this second derailment “deeply concerning” and requested the company’s presence at a town hall meeting.

These derailments result from capitalists’ putting profit before the safety of workers. More specifically, the Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR): a management and scheduling system that was created to boost efficiency and profits. PSR was first implemented in 1998 to make the freight rail system more efficient and cost-effective. Other companies put it into effect in the following years. In 2019, Norfolk Southern enacted PSR.

Essentially, PSR has reduced the number of employees and amount of time for safety inspections, putting pressure on workers to rush inspections and ignore problems that could be hazardous because it would hurt the “PSR metrics,” meaning it would take more time and require more workers to repair. This means it has been more likely that problems get ignored or accidentally overlooked by overworked workers, leading to greater likelihood of a crash. For instance, PSR has shortened the time for safety inspections. Norfolk Southern management recommended that workers spend no more than two and a half minutes on any given railcar. More recently, this has been reduced to only 90 seconds to inspect each car. Since Norfolk Southern is not the only company to use PSR, it’s not just the fault of one company’s negligence, but the profit imperative of capitalism that makes these corporations put profit over the lives of workers and the environment.

According to Vice, several rail workers said they knew before the crash in Ohio that the 32N train was notorious for its breaking knuckles or drawbars (the parts that link the cars together) and its imbalance of weight among cars. Workers brought their concerns about the train to management, who dismissed their warnings, “which workers say is a consistent pattern since PSR has been implemented,” said Vice. “On the run that ended abruptly on the outskirts of East Palestine, multiple red flags, including two mechanical problems, about 32N went undetected or were ignored in the hours leading up to the crash. … 32N has a nickname among some rail workers. … They call it 32 Nasty.” Not only are safety inspections shorter, but trains are also made longer and heavier. Since the same number of workers are placed on trains regardless of their length, it means more profit as well as longer, heavier, and more dangerous trains managed by only a few workers.

Though train derailments have always been common, occurring about 1,000 times a year, they have become more frequent since the implementation of PSR. USA Today reports,

Having fewer and longer trains means data about overall railroad accidents can make it appear as if there have been fewer accidents over the past decade. But a USA TODAY analysis of federal safety data by rate of train accidents per million train miles shows that the rate of accidents has been ticking up for Norfolk Southern progressively over the past decade.

Additionally, the number of hazmat derailments has increased, meaning the railroad industry has been putting our environment and communities more and more at risk each year. In 2012 there were 14 hazmat cars damaged or derailed, while in 2020 there were 117 and in 2021, 85.

None of these can be treated as an individual, local problem. As of February 25, both Michigan and Texas received, with no prior notice, contaminated soil and water from the crash site in East Palestine from Norfolk Southern. The company sent the materials before the EPA took over and without alerting government officials from respective states. According to CNN, 2 million gallons of contaminated firefighting water were expected to be sent to Harris County, Texas, when officials learned that half a million gallons were already there. Similarly in Michigan, 15 truckloads of contaminated soil were sent to the U.S. Ecology Wayne Disposal in Belleville, Michigan. Ironically, this is also in Debbie Dingell’s district, where the state’s most recent derailment occurred.

The derailment in Van Buren Township wasn’t the only one to occur in Michigan this month. On February 1, in Southwest Detroit, a train hung off  the train tracks. Though there were no hazmat cars, there very well could have been. In light of catastrophic derailments like the one in East Palestine, and near-miss derailments like in Michigan, the practice of PSR in the railroad industry is frightening, to say the least. And one can’t help but conclude that with these longer and heavier trains carrying hazardous materials, when derailments happen, the results are going to be much more catastrophic; they’re going to happen in more densely populated areas like cities, and more often. In 2014, the Obama administration tried to regulate the industry by requiring electronically controlled pneumatic brakes (ECP) that reduce the distance it takes for trains to stop on when carrying a certain amount and type of hazardous material. But a lobbying group, the Association of American Railroads, which Norfolk Southern is a part of, opposed the regulation, stating the brakes would be too costly. In 2018, when Trump was in office, the rule was repealed, paving the way for more catastrophic derailments.

Similarly, in early December, Biden and the Democrats showed their true colors by voting yes on an imposed contract for rail workers that ignored their central demands for more sick days, better pay, and healthcare. This proved that Biden is just as business and profit focused as Trump. Several Railway unions have called for the nationalization of railways under worker control, including the Railway Workers United (RWU) and the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE). But it’s not enough to say “nationalization.” We can’t trust a government that functions for the good of corporations and billionaires. We need nationalization under worker control. We need workers in control of their own safety and well-being, because only they have the expertise and the knowledge to keep themselves, our communities, and the environment safe. In 2021 the UE proposed legislation called the Green Locomotive Project, which would’ve introduced cleaner diesel as well as electric locomotives, but it was opposed in Congress. We, as revolutionary socialists, know that until railways are nationalized under worker control, safety and the good of communities and the environment will always come second to profit making. This is only further proved by what happened in East Palestine and Van Buren Township and by management’s failure to stop the catastrophe.

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