There are times that news coverage seems like an ongoing recreation of the Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore movie 50 First Dates. Bad things happen and are then forgotten. Something happens again and rarely is it treated like an ongoing story. The public, other than those directly involved, also forgets and doesn’t press for closer coverage.
A current example is the railroad industry. Take the disastrous accident in East Palestine, Ohio that happened on just before 9p.m. on February 3, 2023. About 50 out of 149 cars derailed, according to ABC News. Out of the cars that went off the rails, 11 carried hazardous waste, including vinyl chloride, ethyl acrylate, and isobutylene. The last two are highly toxic and potentially carcinogenic.
Then came the mandatory evacuation, first within a one-mile radius, then two. Officials conducted a controlled burn of the substances, which turned into a heavy cloud. Eventually, the officials said that air and water samples were deemed safe. Except, the EPA found the chemicals in streams near the derailment site.
Later, large amounts of aquatic life would be found dead, even though officials had kept saying that everything was fine. Thousands of cubic yards of contaminated soil and millions of gallons of liquid waste have been collected. The State of Ohio has filed a lawsuit against Norfolk Southern
Back on February 21, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg sent a letter to the rail line. One part of the multi-page paper: “Major derailments in the past have been followed by calls for reform – and by vigorous resistance by your industry to increased safety measures. This must change.”
Yes, it must. But while an extreme issue, this isn’t the only rail accident that takes place in a year. In fact, there are literally thousands of varying degrees. Here’s a chart from the Department of Transportation:
In the latest year for which there is available data, 2021, 8,096 accidents occurred. Again, that could mean anything. But it does include 747 total fatalities and 4,647 injuries. Of those, 11 deaths and 2,577 injuries were of employees. Outside of grade crossings, where most of the troubles occur, there were 1,626 train accidents.
Total incidents in 2020 were 7,785. In 2019, 9,747; 9,682 in 2018; and 9,497 in 2017.
Shifting from such dangers and outcomes for a moment, think back to the impending rail strike in the fall of 2022. Many of the union workers were, and probably still are, deeply angry. Money was an issue, but the big holdup had been around attendance, sick time and scheduling. People get badly hurt working on rail lines and they need time to recover and get medical help. But rail companies, including BNSF Railway Company, owned by Berkshire Hathaway
No good crying poor. For perspective, the median value for all industries is 7.9%. The heights the railroad industry reaches are the fifth highest of any industry, only exceeded by money center banks (the really big ones), non-bank financial services, regional banks, and entertainment software. Look at “pre-tax, pre-stock compensation operating margin” numbers—before paying taxes or large stock grants. From that view, tobacco is at the top at 44.7%. And second highest? Railroads with their 42.4%.
If you look at the data only from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, employee injuries and fatalities have been falling since at least 2000.
In large part because the companies keep cutting back staff. In October 2000, there were 220,200 railroad transportation workers. By October 2022, the number was 142,300. Over the same period, the number of hauled containers and trailers went from 782,694 to 1,129,125, up 40%.
They could easily afford more workers. Better technology. Additional safety measures. And still make carloads of cash. But they don’t and clearly won’t.
The executive branch has to step in. So does Congress. When last they did, though, it was to side with the owners because of concern that a strike would shake supply chain logistics. Railroads transportation account for about 28% of freight transportation in the U.S., according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
However, there’s another factor as well. As an OpenSecrets.org analysis shows, the rail industry spend $653.5 million on government lobbying over the last 10 years, “with the biggest splurges occurring between 2008 and 2012 where the industry lobbied an act aiming to enforce antitrust laws on the freight railroad industry.” The lobbying expenses in 2022 were only $24.6 million, the lowest annual amount, adjusted for inflation, in more than two decades. (Check the link to see the article for many more details.)
Profits and spending on political leverage—money is the key and people, whether employees or citizens who are in the wrong place at the wrong time, are eventually sacrificial.