Like most private corporations, railroad companies are continuously trying to do the same work with fewer employees. In the case of freight trains, the goal has been to get down to a single crew member running an entire train. Automation can take care of the rest.
The goal would have been met, if a three judge panel had not ruled against an order issued by a Donald Trump appointee to cancel state laws mandating two-person crews and at the same time authorizing one-person crews nationwide. In February, the judges ruled in favor of a challenge to the order by Washington, Nevada and California along with railroad workers’ unions. (Washington and several other states have laws requiring two crew members.)
The judges said that the Trump Administration failed to provide any factual basis for their order, instead offering “an economic rationale” in lieu of safety considerations that are the main concern of the Federal Railroad Administration.
Trump’s order was also in violation of administrative laws that require an opportunity for public comment — but the judges were able to take into account comments submitted in 2016 in response to an Obama Administration proposed ruling on the same issue. There were 1,545 comments supporting multiple-crew rules – out of a total of 1600 total comments. Sometimes comments make a difference.
In Washington, railway unions work under a contract with BNSF that requires 2-person crews, which the union says are essential to operational and community safety. Union leaders were pleased with the ruling, and continued to assert that “having two sets of eyes and two people working in concert together with any improvements in technology will be the best way to serve public safety…”
A “self-regulated” industry
The railroad industry is largely “self-regulated” which means that there is no outside agency that monitors safety or anything else, including collecting accident data. Recently the Railroad Workers United (RWU) decided to prepare an annual list of “major” derailments on Class One railroads—not including passenger trains.
The total in 2019 was nearly one per week. 2020 was only slightly better.
Those who work directly on railroads attribute some of the cause to “PSR” which stands for Precision Scheduled Railroading. This allows companies to extract more profit by running longer trains, working fewer people longer and fewer assets harder.
2020 Major Derailments
UP (Union Pacific Railroad)—Polk County, Iowa 12/25. 2 derailed tank cars leak octane.
UP—Lee County, Illinois 12/24. 39 cars derail carrying freight.
BNSF(Burlington Northern/San Francisco Railway)—Yakima County, WA 12/23. 3 engines, 7 cars derail after semi truck crash
NS (Norfolk Southern Railway)—County line road, Indiana 12/23. 20 train cars carrying 132 cars, 2 locomotives, and containing hazardous waste.
BNSF—Custer, Washington 12/22. A train derails, catches fire, leaks crude oil, residents evacuated.
NS—Cleveland, Ohio 12/4. 10 train cars derail, possibly due to snow.
NS—Jones County, Mississippi 12/2. Several train cars carrying motor vehicles, acetone, and polyvinyl derail, blocking traffic. No injuries.
BNSF—Vado, New Mexico 12/2. 12 empty rail cars and 2 locomotives derail. The engineer and conductor are injured.
NS—Amherst Township, Ohio 12/1. 5 train cars carrying grain derailed.
UP—Highway 99, northern California 11/23. At least 6 cars derail. Tankers carrying hazardous materials spill/are at risk of spillage.
NS—Wayne Township, Ohio 11/24.15 cars derail, there are no injuries.
CSX(Chessie-Seaboard Consolidated)—Baltimore, Maryland 11/23.
21 cars derail, no injuries.
NS—Atlanta, Georgia 11/15. 1 locomotive and 6 rail cars derail. There is a minor diesel leak from the locomotive. A small fire is reported, and power lines are downed. Only one injury.
NS—Roanoke County, Virginia 10/30. A bridge collapses causing 22 rail cars carrying coal to fall in and contaminate Roanoke River with 2000 pounds of coal. No injuries.
KCS (Kansas City Southern Railway)—Mauriceville, Texas 10/29. A 25 car train derails, leaking petroleum from 4 tankers, and a corrosive product from another. Power is cut and the area is evacuated.
CSX—Atlanta, Georgia 10/11. 38 cars derail, causing a fire and 2 injuries, hazardous materials spill.
NS—Ferguson, Missouri 9/25. 6 out of 125 cars derail.
CN (Canadian National Railway)—Hope, British Columbia 9/14. 60 cars carrying potash derail and 20 spill contents.
CSX—Charleston, South Carolina 9/7. 9 empty steel cars derail.
UP—North Platte, Nebraska 8/23. 38 cars derail.
UP—Laramie, Wyoming 8/23. 57 cars carrying corn derail.
UP—Phoenix, Arizona 7/29. Partial bridge collapse after 10 cars derail and catch fire. .
NS—Tuscaloosa, Alabama 7/18. 17 cars derail, causing a vegetable oil spill.
UP—Sheboygan County, Wisconsin—7/6. 13 cars derail, spill coal into a river, block intersections.
BNSF—Winslow, New Mexico 7/6. 29 cars derail.
UP—Phoenix, Arizona 6/29. A train derails and a diesel leak occurs, starting a fire.
UP—Temp Town, Arizona 6/26. 12 cars derail.
BNSF—Wynnewood, Oklahoma 6/13. 11 cars derail, 2 of which leak hazardous materials. Nearby residents are evacuated.
UP—Sweetwater County, Wyoming 6/13. 30 cars derail, and 10 catch fire.
NS—Linden, Virginia 5/29. 14 cars and 5 locomotives derail.
B&P—East Aurora, New York 5/18. 15 empty railcars, two loaded ones, and locomotives derail.
UP—Campbell, Missouri 5/4. 25 cars derail. No spillage or injuries reported.
CSX—Tiffin, Ohio 3/12. One locomotive and 8 cars derail.
CN—Prince George, British Columbia 3/6. 27 cars go off the tracks and a small spillage occurs. An elementary school nearby evacuates.
CN—Toronto, Ontario 2/28. 30 cars derail and crude oil spills..
CSX—East Chicago, Indiana 2/26. 18 tank cars derail, no oil is spilled.
CSX—Draffin, Kentucky 2/13. Mudslide pushes many cars and 2 locomotives into a river. The cars catch fire, and 2 people rescued from the river.
NS—Columbia, South Carolina 2/8. 3 locomotives and 8 rail cars derail.
CP (Canadian Pacific Railway)—Guernsey, Saskatchewan 2/6. 34 cars derail and catch fire, leaking crude oil.
NS—Petal, Mississippi 1/24. 18 cars derail, and ethanol leaks, causing the evacuation of nearby areas.
UP—Knapp, Wisconsin 1/12. 38 cars derail out of 192. No injuries or spillages occur.
CP—LeClaire, Iowa 1/3. 12 cars derail, and a chemical leak is detected.
Lucy Hemenway prepared this list from data collected by Railroad Workers United.