By: Jamie Harvey, Reporter
OMAHA, Neb. – According to National Transportation Safety Board chair Jennifer Homendy, the train derailment that released plumes of chemical contaminants in East Palestine, Ohio, early last month was not the crew’s fault but was entirely preventable. The disaster and subsequent investigation have re-ignited the conversation around a controversial trend in rail management.
Precision scheduled railroading (PSR) is an efficiency-based railroad operations system that saw mass adoption across the nation’s largest railroads (also known as Class 1 railroads) in the 2010s.
The stated goal of PSR is to use point-to-point deliveries to cut costs and reduce the amount of time cars spend in rail yards, called “dwell time.” The practice involves removing trains and cars from the network and keeping the remaining trains moving. Railroad companies claim that PSR provides better service and that the practice has improved or had no effect on railroad safety.
However, industry outlets, safety inspectors, and unions have been voicing their concerns about the safety of PSR for years–claiming the system has led to longer, more difficult-to-control trains, overburdened employees, and pressure to skip safety inspections to maintain tighter schedules.
According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, the nation’s seven largest freight railroads cut their workforce by about 28% between 2011 and 2021. The resulting strain on remaining rail workers is the root of personal-based safety concerns and was a significant factor in the rail union’s threats to strike late last year.
Additionally, all seven railroads say they have increased the length of trains in recent years. The increasing size of freight trains concerns retired third-generation railroader and Railroad Workers United trustee Jeff Kurtz. He said that whenever a new derailment comes up in the news, “the first thing I look for is to see what the size of the train was, what the length and the weight was.”
Kurtz said the “slack” between rail cars can cause different parts of a train to move at different speeds, “especially with long trains, the longer they get, the more in-train forces you have.”
Kurtz believes that, with PSR and other new policies, railroad companies are treating derailments as just a cost of doing business. “The railroads and the Regulators are so disrespectful. And now it’s not just to the employees. It’s to the people that they’re supposed to protect,” Kurtz said.
So far, investigations into PSR’s effects on rail safety have been inconclusive. But bolstered by funding from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, the Federal Railroad Administration has several studies underway monitoring the practice.
Chemical Contamination Researcher and Head of UNO’s Environmental Studies Program John McCarty, Ph. D., said that–in general–”industry is a big proponent of, we want the data. They’re the ones that will bear the brunt of regulations that may not be needed as opposed to the environmental community, who have the public interest in mind.”
But for Kurtz, not seeing regulatory change is frustrating. “This is what gets me about regulators this is what gets me about railroad corporate executives. They don’t know what they don’t know, and so they just fake it, and you know the rest of us suffer for it.”
The Omaha News reached out to Omaha-based Union Pacific Railroad Company for comment on this story but did not receive a reply.
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