Somehow “We tried to warn you,” just doesn’t quite cut it.
For the past several years, rail labor unions – ourselves included – have been ringing the alarm bells about the dangers of the cost-cutting business model, so-called “Precision Scheduled Railroading.” Or, PSR for short.
We’ve testified before Congress and the Surface Transportation Board (STB). We’ve filed comment after comment, and pleaded face-to-face with safety regulators to do something, anything to ensure this death-by-a-thousand-cuts business model doesn’t result in a catastrophic disaster like the one that just occurred in East Palestine, OH.
That’s why we applaud U.S. Transportation Secretary Buttigieg’s announcement to take immediate action to begin to repair our broken freight rail system. Secretary Buttigieg’s announcement is a major step in the right direction. We’re particularly pleased with the Department of Transportation’s encouragement of the industry to install inspection technologies without forgoing human inspections. This mirrors the repeated calls our union has made for many years.
And while our union welcomes the announcement, there is still much to do if we are to roll back years of destructive and unsafe business practices that have plagued our once-prized freight rail network.
PSR is Designed to Avoid Inspections
The PSR model is exploiting loopholes for federal inspection requirements. Federal regulations require inspections by a qualified mechanical inspector (aka Carmen) at each location where train cars are added to a train. This requirement is often ignored or is substituted by allowing operating crews, not Qualified Mechanical Inspectors (aka “Carmen”), to perform pre-departure inspections and/or brake tests. Railroads are also relying increasingly on automated wayside detectors to replace – rather than complement – human inspections. The railroads have sought waiver after waiver to allow in-person inspections to be substituted for automated temperature detectors that simply indicate if an assembly is hot or cold.
The regulations requiring rail cars to be inspected by qualified Carmen don’t exist to cover the railroad in red tape. They exist because it is inherently dangerous to allow uninspected rail cars to traverse our nation’s rail network. They exist to ensure those inspections are being carried out by experts: Carmen. These Carmen have spent on average two years qualifying as a journeyman by learning to properly inspect and maintain rail cars and all of their associated safety components (see 49 U.S.C. § 215). These cars have 90+ inspection points per car, per side, including the wheel bearings like those that failed causing the derailment in East Palestine.
And while we may never know for certain whether a Carman would have identified the car in a mechanical inspection, we do know that Carmen are the only craft that would likely identify a blown/leaking seal on the wheel bearing. Because that’s the job of a Carman. That’s what they were trained to do.
To be clear: nothing should substitute the physical inspection of a qualified mechanical inspector.
We remain very supportive of the efforts made by Secretary Buttigieg and FRA Administrator Bose; unfortunately, we’ve had little help from the FRA’s Office of Rail Safety – an office that has never seen a safety waiver they didn’t like.
And thanks to years of rubber-stamping, expanding and extending safety waivers by the FRA’s Office of Rail Safety, it is safe to say that there exist hundreds if not thousands of rail cars traversing our rail network with FRA safety defects.
The railroads know it. Our Carmen know it. But to date, the Office of Rail Safety seems more intent on finding excuses for the railroads and their waivers, rather than being the tough, skeptical safety regulator that the American public expects and deserves.
No Time for Inspections
Another peril of PSR is the dramatic reduction in time that Carmen are allowed to perform inspections and maintenance (if they’re even exist at the property). The industry standard used to provide for 3-4 minutes per car. Today, our Carmen are forced to conduct these inspections in 60 seconds or less, which is physically impossible.
But that’s how the railroads want it. They don’t want our shop crafts inspecting things because inspections find defects, and defects means a train might be delayed while it’s fixed. In the railroads’ minds, it’s better to send the cars out the door rather than take the time to fix them.
The PSR model relies on speed at all costs, but the necessary maintenance of rolling stock and infrastructure is impossible due to the significant elimination or reduction of the workforce. Moreover, our infrastructure was not designed to support the train lengths we are commonly seeing today. Because many trains under PSR are too long to fit into the yard they are allowed to remain staged on the mainline, where they block crossings for first responders, and motorists while endangering communities across the country.
We have much to do to return our nation’s freight rail network to greatness, but first and foremost our regulators should begin by listening to front line employees, and perhaps take a more skeptical view of rail industry lobbyists and proposals every time they submit an excuse not to comply with safety regulations.
The big freight railroads have cut 30% of their workforce in the last 8 years. There has not been any great technological advancement during this time. Just a gradual move to forcing more work onto fewer people; avoiding safety measures and infrastructure investments, and providing worse service for customers. All to send $200 billion in stock buybacks and dividends to Wall Street over the past decade.
Again, we are grateful that Secretary Buttigieg has announced so many measures to begin holding the railroads accountable for their actions, and we will continue to work with the appropriate government agencies to ensure that a full and proper investigation can be completed in East Palestine. However, without any significant intervention to slow the PSR model there is no question that these unfortunate incidents will continue. East Palestine is the most recent proof that America’s railroad infrastructure is simply not designed to support PSR.
Artie Maratea serves as National President of the Transportation Communications Union (TCU/IAM)
Don Grissom serves as TCU/IAM Vice President & General President of the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen Division (BRC)
Here are a few of the recent safety comments/issues with which our union has raised concerns: