How the Rail Industry Has Put Profits Over People for Decades
On Feb. 3 Zsuzsa Gyenes looked out the window and saw a large plume of smoke filling the sky from her East Palestine, Ohio, home. Gyenes, a 31-year-old single mother originally from East Palestine, had recently returned to her hometown. She stepped out into the street with her 9-year-old son and looked upon a large, raging fire. Her son, a fan of trains and engines, told her that he was both fascinated and terrified. Without any information from local officials, Gyenes sheltered in place.
That night, she felt dizzy and nauseated. When she went to check on her son, he was projectile vomiting and struggling to breathe. It was then that she decided to evacuate. “It was just so traumatic … When that happened, we left right away. We evacuated about 20 miles away,” Gyenes told Prism. She soon moved herself and her son to Chippewa, Ohio, but then was forced to travel even farther away as the spill and plume continued its spread.
Like many residents from East Palestine, Gyenes soon embarked on a journey of confusion and mixed messages. That was the day a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed, blanketing the town with a toxic miasma of spilled chemicals. The waste polluted waterways and killed thousands of animals.
East Palestine is a quiet town with fewer than 5,000 residents. Small houses dot the landscape, united by a quaint municipal building in the town’s center. For as long as most can remember, the train tracks have split the town in two. At times it’s difficult to fathom that small towns like this have been at the center of an economic battle.
The East Palestine derailment is a culmination of a decades-long fight that citizens, rail workers, and environmental groups have engaged in to push back against an industry that has put profits over the health and safety of both communities and employees.
The rail industry runs on an operating model known as precision scheduled railroading, or PSR. PSR prioritizes moving freight cars in ways that put cost-effectiveness above all other factors. Railroads like Norfolk Southern can opt to increase profits by getting rid of signal maintainers, electricians, and any other specialist positions as they see fit. Even the braking system for the East Palestine train relied on technology dating back to the 1860s.
From 2017 to 2021, railroads cut their workforce by 24%, while accident rates increased by 14%. Yet the rail industry is in a record-breaking boom with ever increasing stock prices. In 2019, the five top railroads in the U.S. had a total operating revenue of more than $71 billion.
But everyday citizens are paying the price. In East Palestine, lifelong resident Jami Wallace was forced to evacuate her home with her husband, mother-in-law, and 3-year-old daughter. When officials failed to give her answers about what had happened, she and her husband drove back into town to find “green smoke” had settled around her home. As she bounced around from city to city, she fought with Norfolk Southern to cover the cost of relocating to a new home. “The railroad said they would help me with moving expenses,” Wallace said. “But now they seem to be changing their attitudes.”
Norfolk Southern still hasn’t followed through on their promise. Wallace and her family have been staying at an Airbnb in Columbus, Indiana—forced to shell out $167 per night, a significant increase from the $900 rent she paid in East Palestine. In a town with a median income of $44,498 per year, most East Palestine residents are working-class citizens vulnerable to the whims of a powerful juggernaut. “It’s just so mentally taxing. And then trying to find a place to live while having to beg the railroad for what you deserve, it’s so degrading and humiliating,” she shared.
Ín the wake of the derailment, residents of East Palestine have banded together online. A Facebook group called United for East Palestine—of which Gyenes and Wallace are highly active members—shares resources, health reports, and news. Scrolling through posts, there is a deluge of photos and health reports from residents feeling the fallout from the chemicals, the effects of which may last for years or even decades.
According to the Ohio Department of Health, nearly three-quarters of participants in a recent survey indicated they had experienced headaches since the derailment. Six in 10 reported coughing, and more than half said they had experienced irritation, pain, or burning of their skin.
To better understand the health effects on the residents of East Palestine, advocates like Mike Schade have worked to bring transparency to the chemicals on the Norfolk Southern train. Schade has advocated against toxic chemicals for decades and is a current program director at Toxic-Free Future, an organization that fights to safeguard people from exposure to hazardous chemicals. In particular, he noted the danger of vinyl chloride, which was one of at least six hazardous chemicals on the Norfolk Southern train.
“This was not a unique situation. There are communities around the U.S. that for decades have been exposed to the very same cancer-causing chemicals,” Schade said. Burning the colorless gas can cause reproductive and developmental harm, stunt immune systems, and destabilize hormones. Immediate symptoms can include respiratory irritation, nausea, bloody noses, coughs, and headaches—all symptoms reported by East Palestine’s residents.
Vinyl chloride is used to make industrial plastic products like PVC, children’s toys, and plastic utensils. The Norfolk Southern train was set to deliver vinyl chloride and other chemicals to a plastics manufacturing plant in New Jersey. According to Schade, this wasn’t the first time that a vinyl chloride derailment poisoned a community. Back in 2012, a major train accident in Paulsboro, New Jersey, sickened countless citizens and first responders on its way to the very same New Jersey plastics factory.
“The plastics industry is disproportionately affecting communities that are particularly vulnerable,” Schade said. And with a rail industry that continues to cut corners on safety, the stakes of these chemical spills have never been higher. Schade and his colleagues recently circulated a letter calling on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to test for the toxic waste products caused by vinyl chloride. After months of dragging its feet, the EPA has only begun this work.
Many have pointed out that the spill’s proximity to the Ohio River Basin—which touches 14 states—has spread pollution from Tennessee to West Virginia. However, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan H. Shaw has insisted that in East Palestine, “the air is safe to breathe, and the water is safe to drink.” This statement was echoed by the division chief of the Ohio EPA, who said there is no concern that chemicals will make their way into drinking water systems due to the size of the Ohio River and its ability to self-filter.
But Gyenes and Wallace disagree. Gyenes shared that she doesn’t know if she can trust the water and has still been experiencing bouts of illness since the derailment. Wallace stated that she avoids the East Palestine area as much as she can, but when she returns, she inevitably starts feeling the same symptoms.
At an EPA town hall in February, one East Palestine resident shouted, “Why are people getting sick if there’s nothing in the air or water?” No one had an answer. Residents also slammed Norfolk Southern for using the controversial testing firm Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health for its chemical reports. CTEH was responsible for air and water testing after the BP oil spill and several other corporate-caused disasters. It has been accused by lawmakers in the past of having “a long history of questionable practices” and of “releasing findings defending the corporate interests that employ them.”
Only exacerbating the frustration of East Palestine’s residents are reports that a team of CDC investigators reported feeling sick after launching a March probe in the area. They cited experiencing sore throats, headaches, coughing, and nausea.
For Gyenes and other residents, this only confirms suspicions that they’re not being told the truth. “I feel like [the railroad companies] are just legally getting away with all these things. And they get nothing but a slap on the wrist because they are mega billion dollar companies. We citizens are paying with our lives,” she said.
Working on the railroad
Railroad workers are at the front lines of the railroad industry’s callous emphasis on profits. Delving deeper into the inner workings of the rail industry reveals that it is a nearly unstoppable juggernaut controlled by a trust of only four companies. “90% of rail traffic rolls on four railroads—CSX and Norfolk Southern in the East and BNSF and Union Pacific in the West. That’s it. Talk about power,” says Ron Kaminkow, an organizer at Rail Workers United. RWU is an inter-union, cross-craft solidarity “caucus” of railroad workers and their supporters from all crafts, all carriers, and all unions across North America.
“It’s hard work, and a lot of people sacrifice their health.” Kaminkow, who is preparing to retire from decades in the rail industry, outlined the long hours, dwindling safety measures, and exploitative culture. As an industry, the railroad wields a unique power because it is the only infrastructure-based industry that owns the infrastructure itself: the railroad tracks. “Imagine if UPS owned Highway 80 or Yellow freight owned Highway 70 or Schneider trucking owned Highway 10, and they were the only ones that got to use those highways,” Kaminkow said.
The U.S. freight rail network operates more than 140,000 miles of privately owned track in every state except Hawai‘i, according to the Association of American Railroads. It moves one-third of all U.S. exports and roughly 40% of long-distance freight volume. Thus, companies that want to move materials are stuck waltzing to the railroad’s tune.
“They are somewhat bulletproof. So if you’re a wealthy stockholder, the place to put your money is the railroad because it’s essential, and it’s a monopoly” Kaminkow said. And that’s exactly what investors do. In 2009, billionaire investor Warren Buffett bought the remainder of BNSF rail (which he already had a 22% stake in) for $26 billion, the largest acquisition of his career at the time. And to this day, Buffett puts the value of his investment on par with his investment in Apple.
But Kaminkow and his colleagues have been advocating for reform. In December 2022, President Joe Biden signed a bill into law making the then-impending rail strike illegal, preventing workers from executing a massive walkout around the Christmas holiday. With few options left to them, the RWU adopted a resolution to call for the rail network to be publicly owned. There have also been calls to reinstate a regulatory body like the Interstate Commerce Commission, which was done away with by the Clinton administration. Whether these measures will find enough support on the floors of Congress remains to be seen.
In the short term, the Justice Department sued Norfolk Southern for “unlawfully polluting the nation’s waterways,” demanding it covers the cleanup costs and penalties under the Clean Water Act. The suit explicitly accuses the company of prioritizing profits over safety, lambasting senior executives for cutting costs to bolster their performance bonuses. In a recent fiscal year, Norfolk Southern had 579 violations—with the company only paying an average fine of $3,300.
This month, Shaw told a Senate committee he was “deeply sorry” for the effect of the derailment. He addressed the controversial practice of PSR, saying Norfolk Southern has taken “a more balanced approach to service, productivity, and growth” by “aggressively” hiring craft railroaders.
Shaw also expressed support for parts of the Railway Safety Act and the RAIL Act, which include “measures with the potential for meaningful improvement, such as funding additional training, better advanced notifications, accelerating the phase out of older tank cars, and much more.” But he did not support all of the proposed measures, especially those that called for bigger crews. “We’re not aware of any data that links crew size with safety,” Shaw said.
Finding a new normal
Countless East Palestine residents are struggling to find a new sense of home. Many are unsure how far to even strike out. “I feel like I don’t even know how far away is safe,” Gyenes said. “It’s already hard to uproot my son from his school, his house, and his friends—and I still don’t know how far to go.” But one thing is certain: she says that she will never return home.
This is a sentiment that Wallace echoed. “You know, my extended family was all together within that 1-mile radius. Now everyone’s spread out. There’s a lot of them that aren’t going back,” she said. At this point, she doesn’t know where she and her family will end up—they may even uproot to an entirely different region of the country. But for now, she is trying to take it day by day and support the community she loves. “It’s not just people’s stories. It’s people that I grew up with. It’s my family that’s testing positive for vinyl chloride. These are my people.”
According to Kaminkow, there is a silver lining in the derailment: the railroad struggle has finally entered the public eye. “Everybody has been aghast … We got a lot of media coverage for the first time in my 27 years on the railroad,” he said. He feels that all of this attention has been a rallying cry for advocacy and environmental groups. It has also encouraged the public to learn more about these issues. “A lot of times, people are looking for the single ‘aha.’ And there is a single “aha,” but it’s not technology or this specific craft or this specific department. It’s the overarching modus operandi that is putting one metric above all others.”
And now that people know that metric, rail workers and the communities they serve may get a fighting chance.
Brenton Zola is a first-generation writer, thinker, and polymath who uses the power of words to cultivate humanity.
Co-published with Prism.