The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Train Wreck

Feb 20, 2023

At 9 pm on February 3, a train wreck derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, was made into a disaster by train company officials. They ordered the track cleared in a hurry to get trains moving.

The eastbound Norfolk Southern freight was classed as a general merchandise train, yet loaded among its 150 cars were 20 cars of hazardous liquids including vinyl chloride, the precursor of the chemical weapon phosgene gas. This “general” classification let Norfolk bypass rules on HAZMAT notifications to towns it would roll through.

Norfolk staffed these 3 locomotives and 150 cars with only 2 workers, an engineer and conductor. A trainee was luckily along. The workers said if not for the three of them working together, they would not have been able to uncouple the engines from the wreckage and move to safety.

The Wreckage

Thirty-eight cars derailed and piled up, including 11 hazardous tank cars. East Palestine is a small town of 4,700 with no capacity to take on this type of situation. Norfolk Southern officials persuaded the local mayor and fire department that the vinyl chloride cars might explode if they were not drained and burned off.

Coincidentally or not, this was the fastest way to get the tracks cleared without proper HAZMAT clean up procedures and get rail traffic running again.

The local officials felt they had little choice. The town was evacuated. The phosgene gas that would be created in the burn is similar to the mustard gas used to kill troops in World War One. Other burn products are known carcinogens if inhaled.

The Burn Pit

On the morning of February 6, Norfolk ordered the rail cars emptied into a drainage ditch along the tracks. The chemicals were lit on fire. A hundred-foot burn pit erupted. Ash and soot flew as far as nearby Pennsylvania. Now the air was loaded with the smell and taste of burning plastic. Soot got into homes. Dioxin, a carcinogen, is a byproduct of burning plastic. People a mile and a half away reported headaches and sore throats and even the deaths of pets.

Liquid overspill from the immediate crash had already flowed into 2 streams along the tracks, killing fish and frogs, sending a toxic plume down to the Ohio River. Communities along the Ohio River draw drinking water from it.

Teams of state and regional EPA technicians came in with meters that registered “safe” air and “safe” city water. Residents ask how it can be safe, if their heads hurt and their throats are sore and their children have diarrhea? When questioned, officials declined to answer if they have tested for Dioxins.

With soot everywhere, parents fear for their young children’s exposure over the years to these known carcinogens. Norfolk Southern promises of cleaning everything up are too glib to be believed. How are they going to clean a whole town, restore its livability?

A grandmother asked, "I have three grandbabies. Will they all grow up here and have cancer?"

All That Money

But in fact, Norfolk Southern does have the money, and plenty of it. They have raised their dividend every year, starting from 47 cents a share in 2012, up to $1.35 a share now. Their 2022 profit was $12.7 billion. They announced a share buyback program of $10 billion a year ago.

The dividends go to already fabulously wealthy investors in funds like the Vanguard Group, whose 17.5 million shares hauled in 94.5 million dollars, and JPMorgan Investments whose 10.3 million shares hauled in 55.9 million dollars—for people already too rich, people whose children will never have to play in the soot of carcinogens.

It’s the mindless pursuit of profit that set up this entire tragedy in so many ways. The railroads’ lobbyists keep Congress under control. A rule passed in 2014 to require updated electronic braking systems was rescinded in 2018. Old tanker cars known as DT-111 are more dangerous than newer designs but there is no deadline for railroads to actually replace the bad ones. Longer trains like this one are hard to handle but are still allowed.

Workers Fight for Safety

Cuts to crew size and safety measures have been the most dangerous victories of the lobbyists. The railroads have put PSR in place, Precision Scheduled Railroading. In the last six years with this program, they have cut 29% of their work force! Fewer workers must handle longer trains with less time off, subject to being called out of bed at any moment to sub for anyone missing.

Rail workers don’t have a clear right to strike—the government regulates the unions under the fiction of “national security.” The rail unions desperately tried for years to jump through all the hoops to go on a legal strike, to force the railroads to make PSR safer and more humane. President Biden chose to sign legislation on December 2nd to block a national railroad strike.

Without more eyes and hands on the trains, workers are driving blind. Engineers can’t see back 150 cars! One engineer and one conductor can’t watch 1200 axle bearings. Twenty miles before the crash, a store camera in Salem, Ohio, recorded flames coming from an axle bearing as it burned up.

The failed bearing froze the axle. The weight of the tankers behind it caused the crash. But remember those billions of dollars in dividends? As many townspeople said: "Corporate greed did this!"