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We Uncovered Why Trains Keep Derailing

Corporate consolidation is putting the rail industry on track for a disaster.

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Paula Pecorella: You may have noticed a ton of freight trains derailing in the news lately.

[News Clips]: Another Norfolk-Southern train derails in Ohio..  30,000 gallons of liquid propane derailed in Florida… In Glendale, Kentucky… In Calhoun County, Alabama

Paula Pecorella: But what you probably haven’t heard is the reason why.

There are 1700 freight train derailments per year. And for rail companies like Norfolk-Southern, in the past 10 years, their accident rate has nearly doubled. Derailments, accidents, they’re just a part of business for these giant rail corporations. But for millions of Americans who live right next to the railroad tracks, they’re left wondering, “Will my community be next?”

To understand why this industry is becoming more dangerous each year, I thought I’d take you to a place that perfectly captures how the rail industry has changed.  

Paula Pecorella [yelling from bridge via drone shot]: THIS IS THE GOAT CANYON TRESTLE

Paula Pecorella: It was built during a time where there were massive investments in railroad infrastructure, unlike today where profits go straight into the pockets of corporate executives, and very little money is reinvested in infrastructure.

We’re about to take you on a ride through the railroad industry as we talk to small town mayors and railroad whistle blowers to investigate how corporate consolidation is putting everyone at risk.

David Kaptain: Elgin’s been a working class town for a long time. I was born and raised here. I’ve probably walked every street in town. You get to be 75 years old, and you walk every day, you can cover a lot of ground.

Paula Pecorella: David Kaptain is the Mayor of Elgin, IL, a small city just outside Chicago. His town is about to be affected by the latest example of corporate consolidation in the railroad industry: a $31 billion merger between Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern was just approved, and that’s going to mean more frequent, longer, heavier trains running through his town. 

David Kaptain: We receive about 3 freight trains a day. After the merger, the proposal is somewhere between 8 and 18 freight trains a day.

My nightmare scenario is looking at the overlay of what I saw in Ohio, and putting that in downtown Elgin. The rail line parallels the Fox river all the way through the city of Elgin. The proximity to the river is within feet, measured in feet. If those are cars ruptured, it could contaminate the water all the way from here to the Illinois river. And downstream from us there are about a half a million people. Every mayor that is along this line is thinking the same thing: what happens if that happened to my town?

Paula Pecorella: So how does corporate consolidation lead to more derailments, and more towns like Elgin and East Palestine being put at risk? To understand the connection, I spoke to Phillip Longman who studies the impacts of corporate consolidation. 

Phillip Longman: The more monopoly there is, the less competition there is between railroads, right? So the less competition there is, the more you can degrade service and get, get away with it. There is no sector that is more monopolized than railroads.

Paula Pecorella: He’s right! We went from over 100 class 1 railroads to just seven in a matter of decades thanks to deregulation — and this latest merger brings that number down to six. 

Phillip Longman: So now, especially in the last 10 years, we’ve seen railroad managements basically come under the control of hedge funds on Wall Street, who are demanding very high short term returns on capital. And the way the railroads are accommodating their new masters on Wall Street is by cutting costs every way they can, including cutting labor, ripping out track, and otherwise dismantling this essential national infrastructure just at this moment when we need it more than ever.

Paula Pecorella: Meanwhile, in the last 20 years, railroads like Norfolk Southern have increased payouts to wealthy shareholders by 4,500% and not surprisingly, accidents have increased at the same time. 

So to find out what specific corners they’re being asked to cut — and how it’s leading to all these derailments we’re seeing in the news — I spoke to a rail car inspector who’s worked for one of the big class 1 railroads for over a decade. He asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation from his carrier.

Anonymous Whistleblower: I’ve really noticed inspections have been more hurried. And things that we would be typically taking out prior, we’re no longer taking. Very common would be something like what happened in East Palestine. Honestly, bearings coming off is going to cause derailments. That bearing is what the car sits right on top of, that’s where all the weight is. If you lose enough lubrication in the bearing, it’s just going to overheat. If it overheats and starts to catch, the bearings inside there, the internal bearing will literally melt. The bearing will come off there completely and that will cause a derailment. 

From everything I’ve read, the bearings on the train in East Palestine meted off the axel. You can’t just send these things over and over again and expect something like this not to happen. Even 5 or 6 years ago, if there was a condemnable bearing defect, there was no question whatsoever, we would take them out right away. Now when the cars come through, they’re marked as condemnable and they just send them down the line. They don’t take them out. This is happening daily.

Paula Pecorella: In my time covering the railroads and hearing from workers who have been in the industry for decades, I’ve learned that things weren’t always like this. There was a time back in the day when they felt cared for by the rail carriers, and when their corporate overlords weren’t breathing down their necks to do everything more “efficiently” — at all costs.   

Phillip Longman: Consolidation in the railroad industry combined with deregulation, and combined with increasing control by hedge funds, has directly resulted in compromised safety. Those three things together mean that we’re running longer, heavier trains with fewer crew.

David Kaptain: I want the people of my community to be as safe as they can. The railroads can do that. It costs a little bit of extra money. But I think that’s something we should demand as a community and as a nation.

Phillip Longman: We have critical national infrastructure like railroads that are fantastically under capitalized, undermanned, starved for investment because they’re in control of people that are not interested in the long-term viability of these systems.
Paula Pecorella: This wooden trestle I’m standing on is the largest wooden trestle in the world, it was dubbed the “impossible railroad” when it was built because of how big a feat it would be to move freight through the mountains and deserts of the southwest. But it wasn’t impossible — we once took on monopolies and invested in railroads, workers and our communities. And we can do it again.

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