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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Bring the US railroad system into public hands: Railroad Workers United

Updated: Feb 18, 2023

Against the backdrop of the environmentally catastrophic, fiery Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, the US railway workers' alliance Railroad Workers United (RWU) has reiterated their call for the nationalization of the American railroad system and is calling on other unions and organizations to do the same.

For years, Norfolk Southern, like several other major freight rail companies, has prioritized moving trains as quickly as possible out of terminals and rail yards over safety as part of a wider move across the freight railroad industry towards a management philosophy called Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) intended to move more freight for lower costs. Safety inspection times and personnel have been slashed, hindering efforts to ensure trains are safe before they leave yards or terminals. Crews are dissuaded from reporting safety issues. Workers that persist in raising red flags are often ignored.

The story unfolding here is shot through with corporate greed, as the executives of the criminally negligent railroad, Norfolk Southern, manipulated the political system to maximize profits from that train—and others—to satisfy their Wall Street investors, at the expense of safety, workers and now a small town in Ohio.
It’s a story not just of the wreck of the 150-car, 9,300-foot freight train, where 50 cars jumped the tracks, but the widening variety of toxic chemicals that escaped from them. It’s a story of dying plants, 3,500 dead fish in an Ohio River tributary, and a mass evacuation of the town of 4,700 people.
It’s a story of residents afraid for good reason to come back to their homes. Some haven’t. It’s a story of a town meeting in East Palestine where stricken people vented their frustration and where representatives of its cause, the Class I freight railroad Norfolk Southern, were no-shows.
It’s a story of government turning a blind eye to Norfolk Southern’s abuses, notably not classifying the freight as a “high-hazard flammable train,” which requires extra precautions and inspections in advance.
That’s on Biden administration Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s watch, though prior deregulation which let NS get away with its excesses occurred under Republican Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao.
And it’s a story of NS turning its own blind eye to workers’ warnings of problems even before the train reached Ohio after it began its run in Madison County, Ill., workers are saying. It broke down at least once long before it ever reached East Palestine, they said.

In light of this RWU sees that the time is clearly now to take these rail networks so essential for the American economy and people out of private hands.

Open letter, February 16:

Dear Friends and Fellow Workers:

In face of the degeneration of the rail system in the last decade, and after more than a decade of discussion and debate on the question, Railroad Workers United (RWU) has taken a position in support of public ownership of the rail system in the United States. (see Resolution attached). We ask you to consider doing the same, and announce your organization’s support for rail public ownership.

While the rail industry has been incapable of expansion in the last generation and has become more and more fixated on the Operating Ratio to the detriment of all other metrics of success, Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) has escalated this irresponsible trajectory to the detriment of shippers, passengers, commuters, trackside communities, and workers. On-time performance is suffering, and shipper complaints are at all-time highs. Passenger trains are chronically late, commuter services are threatened, and the rail industry is hostile to practically any passenger train expansion. The workforce has been decimated, as jobs have been eliminated, consolidated, and contracted out, ushering in a new previously unheard-of era where workers can neither be recruited nor retained. Locomotive, rail car, and infrastructure maintenance have been cut back. Health and safety have been put at risk. Morale is at an all-time low. The debacle in national contract bargaining last Fall saw the carriers -- after decades of record profits and record low Operating Ratios -- refusing to make even the slightest concessions to the workers who have made them their riches.

Since the North American private rail industry has shown itself incapable of doing the job, it is time for this invaluable transportation infrastructure -- like the other transport modes -- to be brought under public ownership. During WWI, the railroads in the U.S. were in fact temporarily placed under public ownership and control. All rail workers of all crafts and unions supported (unsuccessfully) keeping them in public hands once the war ended, and voted overwhelmingly to keep them in public hands. Perhaps it is time once again to put an end to the profiteering, pillaging, and irresponsibility of the Class 1 carriers. Railroad workers are in a historic position to take the lead and push for a new fresh beginning for a vibrant and expanding, innovative, and creative national rail industry to properly handle the nation’s freight and passengers.

Please join us in this historic endeavor. See the adjoining RWU Resolution in Support of Public Ownership of the Railroads, along with a sample Statement from the United Electrical (UE). If your organization would like to take a stand for public ownership of the nation's rail system, please fill out the attached form and email it in to RWU. We will add your organization to the list. Finally, please forward this letter to others who may be interested in doing the same. Thank you!

In solidarity,

The RWU Committee on Public Ownership



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