On Friday, February 3, at approximately 9 p.m., a train traveling from Illinois to Pennsylvania derailed in the town of East Palestine, Ohio. The National Transportation Safety Board preliminarily attributed the derailment to mechanical issues visible on one rail car’s axle. Subsequent investigations also determined that an operator’s failure to follow breaking procedures and empty cars in the front of the train contributed to improper weight distribution.
Some of the train’s cars were carrying hazardous substances, which were at risk of becoming engulfed in a fire that ignited after the train crashed. Under the supervision of elected officials and working closely with the Ohio EPA, the railroad’s operating authority conducted a controlled burn and ventilation of some of the most dangerous substances to prevent a “catastrophic tanker failure.” Though a massive explosion was averted, that’s cold comfort to residents who fear the release of hazardous chemicals may have lingering health and environmental effects despite the all-clear order from local officials.
Local, state, and federal authorities have featured prominently in this narrative, but you wouldn’t know it to survey the reaction to this disaster. For many, this is a story wholly and exclusively about the criminal negligence of the private sector and the murderous demands of the capitalist enterprise.
Citing the president of the Transportation Trades Department, a labor organization representing a variety of transportation unions, Vice reported that train derailments are becoming less common as the industry, “only for the sake of profit,” sacrifices “rules and practices meant to ensure as safe a rail network as possible.” Specifically, the report indicts Precision Schedule Railroading, which uses digital technology to improve efficiency. The rail workers and union officials who spoke to Vice deride this practice as little more than a euphemism for “cost-cutting” that “pleases shareholders.”
“[R]emember last fall when rail workers were about to strike?” read a tweet published by More Perfect Union, the activist outlet founded by former Bernie Sanders adviser Faiz Shakir. “They repeatedly expressed that rail companies’ system of running their lines, which they call ‘Precision Scheduled Railroading,’ was really about profit-maximization at the expense of worker and public safety.”
Last year, Congress looked into labor’s claims regarding PSR, and some members were critical of the NTSB’s inability to link accident investigations to this practice. That hearing exposed some tensions between the NTSB and Federal Railroad Administration Administrator Amit Bose, mostly over disparate data-collection practices among the agencies overseeing rail safety. But none of it was not enough to convince the Democrat-led Congress or President Joe Biden to intervene on rail workers’ behalf. Indeed, the sticking point in those negotiations was over labor’s demands for additional pay, flexible scheduling, and sick leave. All that is only tangentially related to PSR insofar as the system has enabled railway operators to trim their workforces, but the effort to convince the public that this dispute centered on railway safety concerns is an exercise in retroactive conditioning.
Some critics of rapacious American capitalism insist this disaster is a failure of government entities only in the sense that American government is just too small and cozy with business interests.
“The government’s deference to Norfolk Southern has left people lost,” wrote the New Republic’s Prem Thakker, referring to the transport company that operates this line. “We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open,” said Sil Caggiano, a hazardous materials specialist, in a quote provided to a local media outlet. Mother Jones reporter James Bruggers leveraged the derailment to attack the very existence of the precursor chemicals that make polyvinyl chloride—aka PVC, one of the world’s most ubiquitous synthetic polymers. The founder and editor-in-chief of the Lever, former Bernie Sanders speechwriter David Sirota, located the origins of this disaster in 2017 with a series of rail-industry donations to Republican campaigns.
Much of this is a general lament over the conditions associated with modernity. Governments at all levels have acute interests in keeping rail lines open, which is why a Democratic president with an emotional investment in expanding the unionized workforce subordinated that desire to the need to keep the trains running. A controlled vent and burn isn’t the equivalent of a “nuking” anything; rather, it was an effort to prevent an explosion that would have wreaked far more devastation. Durable plastics like PVC are a vital element of most modern water distribution and sanitation systems. The narrative that maintains this disaster is attributable to corporate greed elides the degree to which public-sector agencies and the governments to which they report were involved at every step of the way.
None of this is to say that the rail industry deserves less scrutiny from federal regulators than it presently receives or that Northern Suffolk isn’t exposed to some liability. Some business owners have filed lawsuits against the railway, and the EPA has already informed the company that it could be responsible for the costs associated with cleanup. One Ohio lawyer is advising locals to reject the $1,000 “inconvenience fee” the company offered residents affected by the derailment, noting that the firm may be responsible for more damages in the future.
Perhaps subsequent investigations will determine that, but for the profit motive, this disaster could have been prevented. But in reaching that conclusion prematurely and retrofitting onto this event unrelated demands made by rail workers during contract negotiations, these critics have opened themselves up to the charge of motivated reasoning. “For many people, anti-capitalism is an emotional issue,” the author Rainer Zitelmann wrote for the National Interest. “It is a diffuse feeling of protest against the existing order.” That astute observation goes some way to explain why a certain type of activist believes government is responsible for all railway successes and a powerless spectator to its failures.