Longer trains, fewer workers: Minnesota derailment follows years of railroad cost cutting

 DENVER – For decades, railroads have been able to both cut costs and improve safety. But union railroad workers – and federal statistics – suggest we may have reached a tipping point.

Some train accident rates have risen nearly 25% in the past decade, and union workers say further cuts to staffing imperil the nation's safety in the wake of the East Palestine, Ohio, derailment in February and a fiery derailment Thursday morning in rural Minnesota.

Railroads cite statistics that show total derailments are down, and that accidents on the mainline rails are also at historic lows.

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Both positions can be true in part because there are longer but fewer trains than there used to be, and because the measurements are complicated by whether they include minor rail yard accidents and crashes caused by vehicles illegally crossing tracks.

For now, despite the recent high-profile derailments, freight rail crashes remain relatively rare compared to past decades. But union officials say the string of crashes nationwide are an increasingly visible warning sign the system is faltering.

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This photo provided KSTP,  emergency personnel respond to the scene of a train derailment early Thursday, March 30, 2023 in Raymond, Min.  A train hauling ethanol and corn syrup derailed and caught fire and nearby residents were ordered to evacuate their homes, authorities said.

Using technology has been a win-win for railroads

Railroads say heavy investments in technology allow them to run trains safely and reduce human error while saving money.

That technology can take many forms, from wheel overheating detectors to ultrasonic rail scanners checking for defects. Additionally, rail manufacturers have significantly improved the quality of the metal used for tracks, reducing unexpected faults that can cause cracks or breaks.

Minimizing crashes is good for workers, communities and the company's bottom line, since accidents cost both time and money in delivering customers' goods.

"Railroads are very interested in avoiding those kinds of incidents – they want to operate safe track, and to do it efficiently," said Scott Cummings, who manages the Association of American Railroads' Strategic Research Initiatives program

Overall, about 60% of all rail accidents happen in rail yards, and of those, more than half are caused by human factors or human error, the AAR says. Although railroads shed 40,000 workers in the past four years, they moved nearly the same amount of freight in each of those years, about 28 million carloads.

Railroads point to those statistics to show that freight rail remains a safe and effective way to economically transport vast amounts of cargo that keeps America fed and fueled.

Unions say railroads can't keep cutting costs and maintain safety

Railroading used to be a heavily labor-intensive industry – which is why it has such strong labor unions – with more than 1.3 million people employed in 1952. But 80 years later, railroads employ about 146,000 people nationally, according to federal statistics. 

Over that time, the industry also came under intense pressure from the trucking industry, which has contributed to decades of chasing efficiencies in railroading. 

.Workers say a heavy emphasis on more efficient scheduling means they have less time to perform car and track inspections that might prevent derailments, from bad bearings and leaky brakes to broken or loose rails.

"The idea is to do more with less," said Matthew A. Weaver, a railroad worker and union representative with Railroad Workers United. "That’s why we’ve been predicting more and bigger derailments."

Meanwhile, freight railroads say they should be considered a key ally in the fight against climate change: Trains are at least three times more fuel efficient than long-haul trucking, and moving freight by rail instead of truck lowers greenhouse gas emissions by up to 75%, on average, according to the AAR.

'Maybe the railroads have cut too much'

Prof. David Clarke of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville said there's long been tension between railroad workers and managers over staffing and costs. But he acknowledged the increases in train accident rates over the past 10 years bears closer scrutiny. Clarke is a civil engineer and expert on railroads, and he said union complaints about safety have often disappeared the moment railroads offered raises.

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