Corporate Executives And Crooked Politicians Show How To Guarantee A Train Wreck

Stuff happens, right?

I mean, who could've thought that in these modern times of digital monitoring of everything, something as massive as a freight train could become a toxic fireball rolling undetected and unslowed into an Ohio town? But a Norfolk Southern train did just that, derailing in East Palestine and contaminating the air, water, land and families with tons of cancer-causing chemicals. "Gosh," exclaimed Norfolk Southern's CEO; "Gosh," exclaimed the Ohio governor; "Gosh," exclaimed the U.S. transportation chief; gosh exclaimed the GOP chair of the rail transportation committee — this is a terrible, unexpected accident and we're all appalled by it!

Only... all of these officials knew full well that this disaster would happen (though they didn't know exactly where). Indeed, far from unexpected, there are more than 1,000 preventable train derailments in the U.S. every year (Norfolk Southern had another only days after the one in Ohio). And these things don't just happen — they are caused by the profiteering greed of the monopolistic industry's top executives and rich investors.

While Norfolk's boardroom elites have been pocketing record profits in recent years, they've used armies of lobbyists and multimillion-dollar political donations to kill safety protections that would prevent such a disastrous record. To cut costs and jack up profits, railroad bosses have rigged the rules to run trains that are absurdly long, go too fast, carry ever-heavier loads of undisclosed toxics in weak tanker cars, have no fire detectors, use outmoded braking systems — and have as few as one crew member on board. One!

Norfolk's derailed train was made to derail. It pulled 149 cars, stretching nearly two miles down the track, and it was unequipped to detect fires and other problems. This disaster was not an "accident" — it (and those that will come next) was mandated by the corporate and government officials now professing outrage.

Tracking Norfolk Southern's Derailment

"The Wreck of the Old 97" is a classic bluegrass song recounting a spectacular train crash in 1903, caused by the company's demand that the engineer speed down a dangerous track to deliver cargo on time.

One hundred twenty years later we have the "Wreck of the Norfolk Southern" — a devastating crash caused by the corporate demand that it be allowed to run an ill-equipped, understaffed, largely unregulated, 1.7-mile train carrying flammable, cancer-causing toxics through communities, putting profit over people and public safety.

This rolling bomb of a train was hardly unique, for the handful of multibillion-dollar railroad giants that control the industry also control lawmakers and regulators who're supposed to protect the public from public-be-damned profiteers. A measure of their arrogance came just two years ago, when an Ohio legislative committee dared to consider a modest proposal for just a bit more rail safety. Norfolk Southern executives squawked like Chicken Little, asserting a plutocratic doctrine of corporate supremacy on such decisions. They even imperiously proclaimed that state lawmakers have no right to interfere in safety matters.

Ohio's Chamber of Commerce dutifully echoed Norfolk's concern for profit over people, testifying that "Ohio's business climate would be negatively impacted" by the bill. Never mind that Ohio's public safety climate can literally be "negatively impacted" by train wrecks! Plunging deeper down the autocratic rabbit hole, the Chamber insisted that corporate control over workers is sacrosanct. It postulated that a crew-safety provision in the Ohio bill is illegal because it "would interfere with the employment relationship between employers and their employees." Yes, that's a corporate claim that executives have an inalienable right to endanger workers.

Sure enough, bowing to the corporate powers, Ohio lawmakers rejected the 2021 safety bill. And that, boys and girls, is why train catastrophes keep happening.

Reprinted with permission from Creators.

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East Palestine

Norfolk Southern train derailment left toxic wreckage burning in East Palestine, Ohio

While the citizens of a small Ohio village suffer in the aftermath of a train derailment that spilled toxic chemicals there, the usual gang of noisemakers is depicting the accident as a conspiracy to harm them — because they're white, or conservative, or residents of a red state. None of it is true, but the Biden administration's halting response to the accident has allowed that false narrative to gain traction among voters. And amid the din of recriminations from the right, too many Americans have lost sight of what really happened in East Palestine and how to keep it from happening in another place.

Among the noxious accusations promoted on Fox News and its countless imitators, perhaps the nastiest is the notion that the Biden administration punished East Palestine for partisan or even racial reasons. Spewing this nonsense with foam-flecked fervor, Fox's Tucker Carlson declared that the people of East Palestine, unlike (Black) citizens of urban districts, aren't "favored" by the Biden White House. They are "forgotten," said freshman Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance, a far-right Republican, because "they're our voters." They are neglected, claimed ultra-MAGA Charlie Kirk, because "Democrats hate working-class whites."

Today's quasi-fascist Republican Party promotes such poisonous rhetoric while simultaneously proclaiming its "America First" patriotism." But their constant campaign to divide the nation along racial lines for political advantage mirrors the online propaganda that the Kremlin used to boost Donald Trump in 2016. It is treacherous, not patriotic. And it obscures fundamental facts about the East Palestine incident.

First, the derailment itself was caused not by the Biden administration, but by the negligence of Norfolk Southern, the railroad giant that fights relentlessly against the strict safety regulations and adequate train staffing that might have prevented this disaster. Norfolk Southern and its lobbyists, both in Ohio and Washington, D.C., have succeeded in weakening regulations on train technology and crew size despite years of union protest. The worst executive decisions on railroad safety in recent years were made under the Trump administration, although the former president, while distributing expired bottles of "Trump Water" in East Palestine, insisted it had "nothing to do" with him.

Second, there would be nothing magical about a visit to East Palestine by Biden, who was pilloried for traveling to Ukraine instead right after the derailment occurred. In fact, a presidential visit to Ohio would have hampered cleanup and relief efforts. Only Putin's GOP stooges could mock Biden for venturing to Kyiv on a dangerous, arduous, and vital mission at 80 years of age. It is worth noting that neither Trump nor his transportation secretary Elaine Chao visited a single derailment site during his presidency.

Third, any delays in bringing badly needed federal assistance to East Palestine are more likely the fault of Ohio's Republican Gov. Mike DeWine than Biden — who immediately called DeWine after the accident to offer "anything you need." For reasons that still seem obscure but may involve reducing Norfolk Southern's ultimate liability and expense, DeWine has refused to issue a disaster declaration. That strange decision has limited the ability of the Federal Emergency Management Administration to act.

As reported by investigative news site The Lever, DeWine has long maintained very close ties with Norfolk Southern, which has funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to his campaigns, and to its lobbyists, at least one of whom recently held a top position in his office. He has vowed to make the railroad pay for the cleanup, but whether he will press that demand remains to be seen. Railroad safety legislation has languished and died during his administration.

Finally, the salient question for the Republicans barking at Biden is what they will do to prevent future rail disasters. With longer trains carrying oil and other hazardous materials over great distances, something much worse than East Palestine could easily occur in another town or city, possibly killing hundreds of innocent people.

Will Biden's critics now support efforts by the president, congressional Democrats and the railway unions to improve freight rail safety, as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg challenged them to do? Or will they simply move on to the next opportunity for a fake indignation campaign, and leave working-class communities to their fate?

Keep your expectations low.

To find out more about The National Memo's editor-in-chief Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.