(WASHINGTON) -- National union officials say years of cost-cutting and staff reductions within the freight rail industry have led to an increase in the rate of derailments and fostered an increasingly unsafe environment for workers and the public. They urge a strengthening of protection for whistleblowers, among other steps.
Their comments preceded a Feb. 19 letter from Transportation Secretary Peter Buttigieg in which he accused rail companies of spending millions on lobbying efforts to oppose safety regulations rather than support rail safety.
Both union officials did not directly connect what they say is the degradation of safety measures, to the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio – where toxic chemicals were released into the air and water sources, forcing nearly 2,000 residents to evacuate their homes and leaving lingering environmental concerns. However, their letter demanding increased federal oversight was directly prompted by the incident, renewing their stance in the long-simmering debate about the increased focus on profit at the expense of public safety.
In a letter reviewed by ABC News from the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department dated Feb. 9 and in interviews with two officials, union leaders called for increased federal oversight of the largest freight railroads, which they allege have "cut corners" and initiated practices that "pose real threats to workers and public safety."
While the number of incidents, fatalities, and derailments nationwide appear to have trended downward due to an overall decrease in miles traveled by freight rail during the pandemic, the rate of incidents per mile for the country's largest freight railroads has increased over the last decade, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration.
The nation's seven Class 1 railroads – the largest freight rail companies including BNSF, Canadian National Railway, Canadian Pacific, CSX Transportation, Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern, and Union Pacific – suffered two derailments for every million miles traveled in 2022, compared to the 1.71 derailments per million miles in 2013. Across 398 million miles traveled, 2022 saw a total of 818 derailments.
According to FRA data about Class 1 railroads, 447 train cars containing hazmat materials – dangerous goods such as petroleum and chemical products – were damaged or derailed in 2022.
Since 2013, 5,462 hazmat cars have been damaged or derailed, with 135 instances of cars releasing hazmat material. The Federal Railroad Administration notes on their website that rail transportation is "recognized to be the safest method of moving large quantities of chemicals over long distances," especially compared to highway transport.
In an earnings call slide presentation dated Jan. 25, Norfolk Southern executives noted that its FRA train accident rate had increased from 2019 to 2022, though the railroad's personal injury rate declined in the same period.
"We know all too well the deadly consequences of freight train derailments," Greg Regan, president of the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department, wrote in his letter to the Federal Railroad Administration. "If there is no meaningful change in the industry, we fear that these safety incidents will unfortunately keep happening."
In the letter, Regan urged the FRA to mandate that freight railroads use the agency's close call reporting system to improve its federal oversight of the company. The FRA's confidential close call reporting system is currently a voluntary program that allows employees to report near-miss incidents on a confidential basis to an independent third party. None of the Class 1 freight railroads participate in the program; however, Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and 17 other railroads are among those who do participate in the programs.
In a statement Tuesday, the Department of Transportation called on both Norfolk Southern and the entire freight rail industry to join the confidential close call reporting system so that employees could "report unsafe events and conditions without fear of negative consequences…."
The program employs the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as a third party which maintains and analyzes close call incidents and other unsafe events. According to Regan, the program would allow employees to report risk and safety issues to the third party with legal protections against employer reprimand or retaliation.
“The whole point of…this program is to try to identify risks before there is a disaster,” Regan said in an interview with ABC News.
The American Association of Railroads, which represents the Class 1 railroads, described mandating the program as "wrongheaded," noting in a statement to ABC News that preexisting reporting mechanisms are sufficient while "bureaucratic processes" would slow reporting.
When asked about the request on Feb. 15, a White House official said President Joe Biden supports whistleblower protections. However, the official would not comment on the specific close call reporting system or speculate on if it would have prevented the incident.
In a statement to ABC News, FRA Administrator Bose said that the reporting system "is an incredible tool to report unsafe events and conditions, and if more railroads participate, the potential safety benefits would be even greater."
A spokesperson for the AFL CIO’s Transportation Trades Department said in a statement that if the FRA feels that it is unable to mandate the program through its safety jurisdiction, they would encourage Congress to give the agency the authority to do so.
Lauding the relatively low cost of the program, Regan said he believes that fixing the problems flagged by the reporting system “is going to be a heck of a lot cheaper than what the cleanup bill is going to be in Ohio right now.”
A deterioration in safety culture
"We've just seen a deterioration of safety culture in general throughout the industry," Regan said in an interview with ABC News, commenting on the changing business model of the largest freight railroads over the last decade.
Regan said that the widespread adoption of precision-scheduled railroading in the 2010s led to the loss of 45,000 jobs since 2015.
A report from the Government Accountability Office described precision-scheduled railroading as a broad set of changes to increase efficiency and reduce costs, including reducing staff and assets and lengthening trains. Between 2011 and 2021, the seven largest freight railways reduced staff by 28%, according to the GAO. According to Regan, the impact of this cost-cutting is less time, energy, and people devoted to conducting necessary safety checks.
Regan said that five years ago, a worker would spend an average of two minutes inspecting a car; today, he says they are down to 30 to 45 seconds.
"They are applying for waivers on like brake inspections and automated track inspections, and all these things on a near-weekly basis these days, and we are constantly filing in opposition," Regan said.
Regan said that years of employee cuts and stringent leave policies might make an employee afraid to report a potential issue and called for strengthened protection against retaliation.
“I'm sure most members do not feel comfortable reporting something that they thought was a risk or a safety problem because they don't have that protection built into the law that says, you can report this and your employer cannot punish you or give you any sort of reprimand,” Regan said.
In an interview with ABC News, Jared Cassity, an official with the SMART Union Transportation Division and former local union representative, similarly expressed concern that lack of a confidential means of reporting close call incidents could deter employees from coming forward. He pointed, for example, to situations when an employee's own conduct may have led to a close-call situation.
“If I break a rule, so to speak, that may result in a close call, there is no mechanism for me to report that is free from discipline," Cassity said. "So it's more advantageous for me to hopefully not break the rule, or if I do, not report it in the hopes that they won't catch me.”
Cassity also suggested that the FRA may be unaware of the total number of derailments because they rely on self-reporting from the railroads. He compared the degree of self-reporting between the freight railways and the FRA to the relationship between Boeing and the Federal Aviation Association, the former of which paid over $2.5 billion after concealing information about their 737 MAX airplane.
When asked about the East Palestine derailment, Regan said the industry is lucky the incident was not worse or happened sooner.
“I think we are frankly fortunate we haven't had a situation like this where there is an acute risk to public health because of a derailment,” he said.
”There is no downside."
Regan and Cassity said that imposing a confidential close call reporting system would be a low-cost solution to improve accountability and transparency by allowing employees to report incidents without fear of retaliation or reprimand. Cassity said incidents more likely to be reported include speeding, encroaching on a train ahead, work limits, or coupling cars at too high a speed.
"There is no downside," Cassity said.
Regan compared the FRA system to the Aviation Safety Reporting System, a confidential reporting system the FAA has used to analyze close call incidents in aviation. Regan said following the East Palestine derailment, the freight rail industry could look to the commercial airlines as a model for reducing incidents in the future.
ABC News reached out to the seven Class 1 railroads for comment. Some railroads like Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific pointed towards their current reporting systems as sufficient. A spokesperson for Norfolk Southern rebutted the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department’s allegation of decreased safety and noted that Norfolk Southern has seen a declining injury rate and mainline train accident rate.
Speaking on behalf of the broader freight rail industry, a spokesperson for the AAR wrote in a statement that "allowing employees a protected, streamlined way to report potential safety issues is essential." However, rather than adopting a third-party system, they wrote that the internal procedures for confidential feedback are sufficient.
"It has become clear that the goal of encouraging swift, actionable feedback ends up bogged down in bureaucratic processes and resource intensive reporting” under the third-party system, the spokesperson wrote.
A spokesperson for the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department said the current industry-run systems lack the necessary protections from retaliation to be effective.
While the National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the incident, Cassity and Regan believe a more robust reporting policy would help railroad workers and the public.
"I think that the folks of East Palestine would see a difference in that the employees now have skin in the game to make sure that what's actually occurring on the railroad is what's being reported, and our agencies will be able to act in accordance," Cassity said.
ABC News' Karen Travers, Alex Presha, and Mark Nichols contributed to this report.
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