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.

WATCH: Here's why train derailments are bringing attention to railroad safety in the US

BACKGROUND: Trains keep derailing all over the country. What's going on?

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.
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.

"There certainly is a need to take a look at this, because the way the railroad industry has been going in the past years, they have been trying to cut costs, and there has been a big reduction in the labor force," he said. "There is some concern that maybe the railroads have cut too much."

"It's a gradual upward trend (in railroad accidents) – it's not dramatic but it is increasing. But at the same time, it's well below what it used to be," he said. "If that's going up, we need to be asking the question, why? Is there something happening that we can do something about?"

The AAR says it is primarily concerned about accidents on the main freight lines, rather than what are more often minor incidents in rail yards. Last year, railroads tallied the lowest-ever rate of track-caused accidents, a reflection of their investments in better rails and better monitoring of them, according to the AAR.

"We at AAR tend to focus on the mainline accidents as those are more representative of where impacts to communities across the nation could potentially arise," said AAR spokeswoman Jessica Kahanek. "They also are more akin to what happened in East Palestine. Those were at a record low in 2022. Track-caused accidents represent the main driver of mainline accidents (and) those were also at a record low in 2022."

Union workers say accidents in rail yards nevertheless pose a risk to workers, if not the general public.

What changes have been made and what are the safety concerns?

  • Inspections: Weaver, the union worker, said workers don't have time to inspect rolling stock the way the used to. “You used to have guys walking each side of a train, taking 2-3 minutes for each car. And now they’re pushing for 90 seconds to inspect a car. There’s a lot that can be missed," he said.

  • How trains are managed: Railroads used to prefer trains to contain cars with the same kinds of commodities, like crude oil or corn. Now they use "precision scheduled railroading" which relies heavily on trains filled with a wide variety of cargo and kept on a tight schedule.

  • How long trains are: A consequence of that scheduling — trains have gotten a lot longer. Today, 200-car trains are common, while the average length in 1929 was just 48 cars, according to federal officials. Train cars vary in length, but many freight trains in the west stretch two miles long, and experts say those longer trains are harder to control, especially when there's only two people aboard.

The increase in accidents examined by USA TODAY covers every federally reportable incident on railroads nationally, but excludes crashes at vehicle crossings, which are often caused by drivers illegally crossing the tracks when a train is approaching.

One possible complicating factor driving the increase: a congressionally mandated safety system known as positive train control has cost railroads about $20 billion to implement. It aims to increase safety in large part by automatically limiting train speeds.

Clarke said he suspects railroad managers have gotten so focused on implementing that new system while simultaneously juggling efficiency concerns and dealing with COVID-related challenges that some safety measures have been ignored or minimized. He said safety issues may not be immediately apparent, but surface a few years later. He said there's also always natural fluctuations.

Another factor cited by unions and other safety experts is the slow adoption of electronically controlled brakes, which apply all brakes on all train cars simultaneously, instead of sequentially. Safety experts argue they would make trains safer by stopping them faster; railroads have argued they aren't necessarily better.

According to federal records, trains derailed 1,164 times last year, and 1,095 times in 2021. But in 1979 railroads reported 7,482 derailments, and reported 6,442 in 1980.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Train derailments in US follow years of cost cutting by railroads