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Train that derailed in Ohio highlights cost-cutting strategy in rail industry

Calls for railroad industry to improve safety
Ohio train derailment highlights growing concerns about safety 05:02

The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that contaminated at least 15,000 pounds of soil and 1.1 million gallons of water earlier this month has brought to light a cost-cutting strategy in the rail industry. 

The strategy, known as Precision Scheduled Railroading, seeks to streamline rail operations by lengthening trains while cutting the workforce. The train that derailed on Feb. 3 was 9,300 feet long, weighed 18,000 tons and had about 150 cars.

"This has been part of a drive by these multibillion dollar companies to wring every penny of profit out of the rail system," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CBS News. "They have to cut their workforce massively, including safety positions, including maintenance positions."

Between 2011 and 2021, the number of workers at the largest U.S. rail companies decreased by 28%, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Over the same period, net revenue increased by around 58%.

"What I can tell you from our members on the ground is that they feel like safety has degraded," said Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department. "There is a real impetus to go faster. And so we've seen that pressure decrease the inspection times from about two minutes down to an average of 30 to 45 seconds."

Regan said data from the Federal Railroad Administration shows the rate of accidents has increased over the last 10 years, particularly in rail yards.

The Department of Transportation has called on the industry to immediately make several changes, including using technology to improve inspections and replacing older tank cars with newer, more secure ones — something rail companies have long resisted and Congress has not prioritized. 

"I think that none of us can look at what happened there and say that everything should continue just the way it was before," Buttigieg said.  

Michael Regan, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced Tuesday he was ordering Norfolk Southern — the railway company in charge of the train — to pay for the entire cleanup of East Palestine or suffer the consequences.

"If the company fails to complete any action ordered by EPA, the agency will immediately step in, conduct the work ourselves and then force Norfolk Southern to pay triple in cost," he said. 

In a statement Tuesday, Norfolk Southern said it recognized it has "a responsibility" and that the company has been paying for the train derailment cleanup and will continue to do so.

"We are committed to thoroughly and safely cleaning the site, and we are reimbursing residents for the disruption this has caused in their lives," the statement said. "We are investing in helping East Palestine thrive for the long-term, and we will continue to be in the community for as long as it takes. We are going to learn from this terrible accident and work with regulators and elected officials to improve railroad safety."

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