Happening Now

Time May Be Short for Extra-Long Trains

April 7, 2023

by Jim Mathews / President & CEO

Precision Scheduled Railroading is drawing more scrutiny than ever in the wake of the East Palestine derailment.

From a strictly engineering point of view, PSR can’t necessarily be blamed for what happened. But from the point of view of policymakers in Washington and in many states, extra-long freight trains made possible by running with a 40 percent smaller workforce have led to cut corners and an eroded safety culture.

That was very much the view I heard last week during some of the nine appointments I had in Congressional offices to talk about passenger rail, Amtrak’s Fiscal 2024 appropriation request, and customer service highs and lows.

It’s also the view of the U.S. government. The DOT has stepped up reviews of Norfolk Southern and other Class I carriers in recent weeks, and today FRA issued a non-binding advisory urging the Class Is to look more closely at train makeup as they dispatch trains out into the community. The Environmental Protection Agency moved quickly after the derailment to issue a binding “blank check” cleanup order against N-S. And more recently, the Justice Dept. and the EPA are now suing Norfolk Southern over the consequences of the East Palestine wreck.

Moreover, it’s a view taking hold in many states. Lawmakers are considering introducing state-level regulation of long freight trains in Minnesota and Illinois, and the Nevada legislature this week also formally introduced a measure that would prohibit trains longer than 1.5 miles from operating within the state.

With that context, take a look at this commentary written by a gentleman who identifies himself as a career Norfolk Southern carman. He offers significant detail on how the PSR culture contributes to safety lapses throughout a railroad’s operation, and it’s worth your time to get his perspective on what’s happening.

Extra-long trains are doing a lot more than making every single one of Amtrak’s 15 long-distance services fail the new Federal 80 percent customer on-time performance (Customer OTP) standard.

To stave off retribution, the author is not fully identified. As a result, I cannot tell you how genuine this piece may be. However, I have received many breathless emails from advocates and supporters citing anonymous social-media posts with much less authority than this commentary, and in any case, much of the detail checks out with what I have already learned from colleagues at the Class Is and from contacts with Federal regulators. Enough of the detail is true that I’m willing to share this commentary with all of you and let you make up your minds. You can read Mike's full-length commentary here at this link.