In the aftermath of February’s rail disaster in Ohio, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee held a key hearing March 22 on “Improving Rail Safety in Response to the East Palestine Derailment” to get to the bottom of what when wrong in the accident and to discuss the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023.  

SMART Transportation Division Ohio State Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker answers a question March 22 in the rail safety hearing before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee in Washington, D.C.

The committee had an all-star cast of witnesses who testified including two U.S. senators; Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine; East Palestine resident Misti Allison, who represented the community; National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy; David Comstock, chief of the Ohio Western Reserve Joint Fire District; Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw; Association of American Railroads (AAR) CEO Ian Jeffries, and SMART-TD’s Ohio State Legislative Director (SLD) Clyde Whitaker. To begin the hearing, U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown and JD Vance kicked off the day explaining in detail the bill, S.B. 567, they’re putting forward.  

Brown began his comments by thanking the witnesses for testifying and referred directly to SLD Whitaker, calling him “an unrelenting advocate for safe working conditions for his members and all people working in Ohio railroads.”  

Brown then went on to discuss why this legislation is so necessary.

“Norfolk Southern followed the Wall Street business model,” he said. “Boost profits and stock price by eliminating, over the last decade, 38% of its workforce.”

He went on to describe Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) perfectly, saying, “They cut cost to boost profits. The communities along their route be damned!” 

Vance followed Brown, and in a tone very similar to the testimony he gave March 9 in front of the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works, laid out that the intention of the bill is not to put the government in charge of day-to-day operations of America’s railroad companies like the bill’s outspoken opponents would like the public to believe. He addressed that concern of the rail carriers who have made it known that they feel the legislation is an overreach by Congress, where he stands on that issue by stating plainly that, “You cannot on the one hand beg the government to bail you out of a labor dispute three months ago and then say that it’s ‘big government’ to have proper safety standards in the way that you conduct your railroads. It’s a ridiculous argument, and it doesn’t pass the smell test. ” 

Gov. DeWine followed the Buckeye State’s senators and weighed in heavily on behalf of the residents of East Palestine. He started by describing life as it was in the village of 4,700 leading up to events of Feb. 3, 2023. He walked the committee through the Norman Rockwellian Friday night where the community was keenly focused on the high school basketball game in progress until the unthinkable happened.  

“Life stopped being normal for everyone in this community — it stopped feeling safe — when 38 cars of that Norfolk Southern freight train, carrying hundreds of thousands of pounds of hazardous materials, hurtled off the track. In an instant, life turned upside down,” he said. 

DeWine went on to describe the tough questions facing residents of East Palestine revolving around their physical health as well as the viability of their community’s future.  

These points were driven home by witness Misti Allison. Allison, a resident of East Palestine for the last four years, was testifying in front of the Senate committee on behalf of her community. In her own words, her goal was, “ to put a face on this chemical disaster.”  

In addition to emphasizing DeWine’s points in reference to the health concerns swirling around in East Palestine, she shared other details about a community shattered. Among the issues she brought to the committee’s attention were home equity of the residents, the viability of local businesses, and the concerning contradictions in the results of various sources of environmental testing of air, water, and soil samples.

The most-telling and unique issue she brought to light was the still-developing mental and emotional health concerns of the community post-derailment. She pointed out the ramifications the derailment has had especially among the youth of East Palestine in her written testimony: “Kids are not allowed to play on the playground because it hasn’t been cleaned. So the kids now play a game they invented called ‘EVACUATION’ during recess. This train derailment has robbed our kids of their childhood, and perhaps more.” she said. 

This imagery is powerful and takes the importance of the Railway Safety Act of 2023 out of the realm of financial ramifications and puts it squarely in the arena of human rights.  

At the conclusion of Allison’s testimony, it was time for Brother Whitaker to take the rather large stage and speak our union’s truth directly to power. SLD Whitaker explained in detail the effects PSR have had on our industry from the ground level.  

In July 2022, Whitaker filed a complaint with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) directly reporting that NS had been ordering their crews to disregard warnings from wayside defect detectors in his state and to keep their trains rolling after receiving alerts of hot bearings.  

He informed the senators that he had personally cautioned the FRA months prior to the East Palestine derailment that carriers’ business practice and adherence to the PSR doctrine was putting our crews and communities in harm’s way.  

“PSR has made the Class I railroads more than $160 billion in profit since 2015 while at the same time causing the greatest degradation of safety in modern day railroading,” he said in his written testimony. “As we have all seen in East Palestine, this cut-your-way-to-profit model is not sustainable and it is very, very dangerous.” 

He further emphasized the impact of PSR on safety by talking about the current state of safety inspections of rolling stock and maintenance of equipment.  

“No longer is identifying defects the goal of inspections. Instead, the goal is to minimize the time it takes to perform them or the elimination of them altogether, so the trains keep moving,” he said. “Compound this with the fact that the railroads are on a determined course to grow these trains to astronomical lengths and you have a predictable outcome, and that outcome is East Palestine.” 

A member of the audience donned a hazmat suit while attending the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing on railway safety March 22 in reference to the contamination that occurred in East Palestine, Ohio, after a Feb. 3 derailment.
A member of the audience donned a hazmat suit while attending the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing on railway safety March 22 in reference to the contamination that occurred in East Palestine, Ohio, after a Feb. 3 derailment.

Following Brother Whitaker was not an easy task for CEO Alan Shaw of Norfolk Southern. He was noticeably uncomfortable, and his opening statement was predictably a rehashing of the same talking points he has used since the spotlight turned to him and his company in early February.  

When CEO Shaw and Ian Jefferies, president of the Association of American Railroads, completed their revisitation of industry jargon, the hearing was not over.  

Each senator was given the opportunity to ask questions of the panel. Senators of both parties took turns flogging Shaw and Jefferies about the holes in the logic behind their arguments and pointing out the contradictions between their claims and what Whitaker (a certified conductor and engineer) was telling them his firsthand reality is.  

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), ranking minority member of the committee, was clearly deferring to SLD Whitaker’s expertise, when the stories of the two rail executives weren’t mirroring reality.  

To sum up the committee hearing that took the better part of a day, it is safe to say that Sens. Brown and Vance seem to have assembled a piece of legislation that has wide support among their senate colleagues on both sides of the political spectrum.

SMART-TD would like to let Brother Whitaker know that his representation of our organization and of rail labor is a proud example of how we will continue to fight for our members and the communities they call home.  

The brutal effects of Precision Scheduled Railroading, better known as PSR, on the lives of railroaders since 2017 have been well-documented. It’s been almost as bad for suppliers, who have seen delays in their products making it to market. It’s been bad for shippers, who have seen deliveries have to take circuitous routes so the carriers can game the metrics to show that a rail car isn’t dwelling somewhere, and it’s been bad for retailers and manufacturers, who have experienced difficulties getting products on their shelves and materials to their assembly lines.

The people benefiting from the ruthless implementation of PSR have been the rail company shareholders and execs, seeing their wallets fatten and profits blossom as profitability and share prices rise on the backs of the efforts of SMART Transportation Division members and all of rail labor.

It is a common quip on social media for railroaders to comment on articles about derailments — “But at least the shareholders are OK,” or some variant, meaning that the folks who write the accident off as the cost of doing business will be just fine so long as the money train keeps delivering.

Yet following Norfolk Southern’s Feb. 3 derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, the carrier and PSR have received even more public scrutiny than perhaps either can stand.

The story of PSR and what it means for industry safety has been exposed by the press coverage of the fiery wreckage in East Palestine. Confusion and anger about the business practice have been flowing out of the national media faster than vinyl chloride contaminating groundwater. Additional headlines are generated seemingly daily by increased coverage of derailments occurring across the continental U.S. In each, the specter of Norfolk Southern and the events in East Palestine are refreshed in one way or another.

It seems that Norfolk Southern’s extended nightmare has worsened. After a month and a half of consecutive losses in press cycles featuring the release of toxic materials in a region where thousands of people live, multiple derailments, an employee fatality, having their CEO lambasted by U.S. senators on live TV, and derailing another train 12 miles from the hometown of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, it would be fair to ask how it could get worse.

An internal revolt can be added to the list. Their own shareholders have decided to bite the hand that feeds. A class-action lawsuit filed in mid-March against NS by a group of shareholders claims they were misled about the ramifications of PSR. The suit states that NS failed to disclose pertinent information about PSR, such as the involvement of longer/heavier trains and deep cuts to operational personnel. They go on to claim that Norfolk Southern’s embrace of PSR was part of a “CULTURE OF INCREASED RISK-TAKING AT THE EXPENSE OF REASONABLE SAFETY PRECAUTIONS.”

Ironically the people NS and all rail companies are using PSR to make richer aren’t comfortable with PSR anymore for the same reasons railroaders and their families have been uncomfortable with it since its inception. Now that political leaders and the media have taken the time to dig into the topic, the narrative is iron clad.

Essentially, the group of NS shareholders say that large-scale disasters were inevitable because of the practices of PSR. Due to that inevitability, they say that NS leadership was not acting as good corporate stewards of their investments. So even though the investors have benefited from record-breaking returns, seeing an Ohio village spoiled and the later economic consequences may have them now sensing the end of the road. These shareholders have become appalled at what PSR really meant on the ground level. It’s a classic case of losing your appetite when someone tells you how the sausage is actually made.

Under normal circumstances, it would be difficult to sympathize with the shareholders of NS and the other carriers. For seven years, rail labor has felt the weight of their finely polished wing-tipped shoe on our fingers as we try to keep the fraying supply chain together. The results have been a driving force in both our personal and professional lives — constant exhaustion, poor morale and the dread of wondering what else will go wrong.

That being said, there is a time-tested adage that, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” And if the railroad employees are revolting against PSR, the government regulators are pushing back against PSR, and now the mighty shareholders are joining in, we need to embrace it. This class-action suit by NS shareholders may turn out to be the loudest voice in the anti-hedge fund/PSR railroading chorus.

What we the people who move their freight every day say means absolutely nothing to carriers. What the FRA does to them is a nuisance that only means the carriers have to adjust the next quarter’s lobbying budget. But when the shareholders seize pitchforks and torches, we all know that is the only pressure that means anything to the hedge-fund operators leading our nation’s railroads.

We would encourage all our members to keep an eye on this lawsuit. If you are an NS employee or anyone with significant amounts of stock in their company, we would encourage you to follow the link provided to look into joining the suit.

SMART-TD will continue to keep you informed as we push back against PSR and fight now and into the future for your quality of life to be restored to what it was before Hunter Harrison’s legacy infected our industry.

“From the Ballast” is an open column for SMART Transportation Division rail members to state their perspective on issues related to the railroad industry. Members of the union are encouraged to submit content by emailing to Columns are published at the union’s discretion and may be published in the SMART-TD newspaper.

Most of us with any amount of time on the railroad have the shared experience of feeling the hot seat that comes with a company discipline hearing. These kangaroo courts are not set up to be fair and impartial fact-finding missions.  As we all know, they are an exercise in intimidation meant to make us feel as uncomfortable as possible. If they can add the bonus of humiliation on top of the penalty they’re threatening to impose, it makes the experience so much better.  

The U.S. Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works’ hearing March 9 put Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw in our shoes for once (and not that pair of work boots he acquired to look like a relatable guy when the cameras were filming him in East Palestine, Ohio). For once, the so-called “big boss” got to experience the discomfort and frustration of when people in authority demand an explanation and accountability. It was very reminiscent of how we feel in similar situations when we’re getting grilled by railroad managers like Shaw.  

It was hard to feel any sympathy. Yet while every senator seemed poised to force Shaw’s hand, each stopped just short of going in for the kill. Those who did ask hard questions were given lukewarm half-answers — snippets from the well-rehearsed lines that he has been using since the derailment happened. He appeared like he was simply spinning his greatest hits album of the soundbites that scored highest in a focus group. 

Based on the fact that the hearing went for over a third of the time a rail crew has off between shifts these days, most members likely didn’t have the opportunity to watch. In an effort to put a bow on it, the hearing broke down like this: 

CEO Shaw was asked about as many questions as you could fit into the 3-hour, 19-minute hearing but somehow managed to answer every one of them with one of the following responses on a loop.  

  • I have only been the CEO since May 2022. 
  • I am personally determined to make this right for the community of East Palestine. 
  • Norfolk Southern will be in East Palestine tomorrow, next month, next year, and ten years from now. 
  • We created a new website in response to the disaster. 

After seeing his performance, (and that was exactly what it was) I would offer Mr. Shaw some advice. First, he should hire a new acting coach to help him get through these situations. His entitled angry Wall Street CEO reality leaked through the repentant empathetic “Mother Teresa” persona that he was trying to adopt before the panel as penance for the misery that’s occurred in East Palestine.  

Second, I would advise him to learn the value of direct answers. He was asked yes/no questions time and time again and offered answers that went on for minutes at a time and somehow did not include either of those two words to definitively answer what was asked.  

Since the senators were allotted a limited amount of time for their questions, Shaw was successful in running out the clock by playing a version of corporate prevent defense. But where he succeeded in not being pinned down to anything that could be held up in court as a commitment, he failed to move the needle in the court of public opinion. His wishy-washy answers, devoid of authenticity, full of unwillingness to commit to substantive industry change away from Precision Scheduled Railroading, and the recurring theme of “we’ll consider throwing more money at the problem we created,” clearly angered the senators on the Committee of Environment and Public Works. We will see what effect they have on the all-important shareholders of Norfolk Southern. His appearance did nothing to inspire the confidence of SMART Transportation Division.  

Among some of the questions from the senators that Shaw artfully dodged were: 

  • What did NS learn from the 20th derailment that resulted in a chemical release since 2015 that it didn’t learn from the 5th, the 10th, or the 15th? — Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) 
  • Will you lead the rail industry in getting away from the business model known as Precision Scheduled Railroading? — Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) 
  • Was the owner of the rail car in question who is responsible for its maintenance and contents involved in the decision to vent it and burn off the contents of it? — Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma) 

One last highlight came from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island). It wasn’t posed as a question, but in Whitehouse’s comments, he stated that, “Mr. Shaw, the news is reporting that there has just been a significant derailment in Alabama of one of your trains. I certainly hope that all of your team and anyone in the vicinity is safe and well. You may need to look into that.” 

Though the net result of the hearing was minimal, CEO Shaw came out of it looking highly frustrated, but less than trustworthy. He was clearly uncomfortable being held accountable for the unintended but inevitable consequences of his company’s embrace of PSR.  

What left me with an uncomfortable feeling was that Shaw continually framed all the promises made to East Palestine and surrounding communities as “personal commitments.” As anyone on the rail can tell you, nothing is true or real in this industry until it is. There is no such thing as a guarantee. With all of the commitments coming from Shaw personally, it raises the question of what happens if NS fires him?  

Likely, he’ll float away comfortably from East Palestine on his golden parachute, make a comfortable landing elsewhere — maybe as an industry lobbyist — and the Ohio village residents he testified to have such an affinity with would be left holding a bag full of empty promises, just like every one of us railroaders with wallets full of unfulfilled IOUs from Class I managers. 

Daniel Banks is a Class I certified conductor and government affairs representative for the SMART Transportation Division. 

SMART Transportation Division Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity was a guest of The Rick Smith Show podcast released on Friday night.

In the interview, Smith and Alt. NLD Cassity discussed the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and the role Precision Scheduled Railroading potentially played in causing it.

The interview clip will not only give insight on the disaster itself, but will help you provide answers when friends and family ask you how this occurred and whether they should be worried about this kind of accident happening on a main line near them.

Watch on-the-ground reporting from East Palestine, Ohio from SMART News.

Prior to the lifting of an evacuation order for residents of East Palestine, Ohio, SMART officers and members pitched in to assist the displaced residents with supplies and other support.

Due to the massive Norfolk Southern derailment there on Friday, February 3, and the hazardous materials release, lives in the community were turned upside down with many having to relocate temporarily in community shelters.

SMART-TD Ohio State Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker delivers supplies to a shelter for residents displaced by the East Palestine, Ohio, derailment on Feb. 8.

SMART-TD Ohio State Legislative Director (SLD) Clyde Whitaker, along with representatives of SMART International went to one of the shelters to bring supplies and lend support. SLD Whitaker and the other members of SMART listened to the concerns of the residents at the Family Assistance Center that was set up at Abundant Life Fellowship Church in New Waterford, OH.

The scene at the shelter was not a memory that Whitaker will forget anytime soon. Concerns were voiced that ranged from the immediate needs of food, shelter and clothing to the long-term environmental condition of the soil, air, and water in the town. Much of the discussion focused on how the future would look in this proud community, and what kind of remediation effort they could expect to see from the carrier.

“This really hit home to a lot of us. It’s the biggest catastrophe that I’ve seen in my 23 years of railroading here in Ohio,” Whitaker said.

Some of the most heated discussions revolved around air quality concerns. The large-scale chemical fire that was the result of Friday’s derailment and Tuesday’s “controlled release” of chemicals by NS created more than just the pictures that have been circulated through both local and national news media. It also created serious health concerns. Though the residents have been assured throughout this process that testing continues to show that the air is safe to breathe, many of the people at the shelter Wednesday remained skeptical.

Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, talk while sheltering at Abundant Life Fellowship Church on Wednesday, Feb. 8.

One of the East Palestinians SMART talked with was a mother who asked to be identified only as Britt. She is deeply concerned because of her daughter’s asthma. Britt gave details about her daughter’s condition having been well controlled, and that she had not had an episode in some time until the derailment. When Britt and her family attempted to evacuate, her daughter had an immediate flare up of her condition with the very limited exposure of walking from the family’s front door to their car in the driveway.

Stories like Britt’s as well as multiple accounts of fish and animals being affected by the current conditions have the community worried about the immune compromised as well as the long-term effects for their community as a whole.

SMART-TD Ohio State Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker gives a hat to a resident displaced by the East Palestine, Ohio, derailment on Feb. 8.

NS, the NTSB and a few local churches also helped by establishing shelters for the displaced families.

SMART-TD would like to thank SLD Whitaker and his team for their commitment to community outreach, and we will continue to keep Britt’s family and all of East Palestine in mind as we advocate for safety measures throughout the rail industry.

Those wishing to contribute donations to the community of East Palestine, Ohio, due to the major Norfolk Southern derailment Friday are urged to pitch in to assist evacuees of the village near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.

The NTSB will be the lead agency for providing updates on the incident. They’ve established a Family Assistance Center to address the needs of the community and support those directly impacted.

“The community needs all the help they can get,” SMART Transportation Division Ohio State Legislative Director Clyde Whitaker said. “These are citizens of our state, our neighbors and they need some help. Let’s show everyone what we can do.”

Here are the various community outreach programs available:

Brightside Project, 483 E Pershing St. Salem OH Phone: 234-320-4005 is offering food and personal care products from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Feb 7-9.

First United Methodist Church, 244 S. Broadway, Salem, OH Phone: 330-337-9351 is distributing clothes 9 a.m.-noon.

The Way Station is offering food, personal care products, diapers and clothing. Collection times at 769 Springfield Rd, Columbiana OH are 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. Monday – Friday. And from 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. at 125 W. 5th St., East Liverpool.

Donations of non-perishable food items and personal care products can be dropped off at either location during the hours listed.

Angels for Animals is providing assistance with pet care — 330-502-5352

Norfolk Southern has opened a family assistance center that has set up at the Abundant Life Fellowship Church in New Waterford 46469 Route 46, New Waterford, OH.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has been launched to investigate a 50-car Norfolk Southern derailment that caused an inferno in East Palestine, Ohio, the night of Feb. 3.

According to WKBN, a state of emergency was declared by the mayor of the village with a population of just over 4,700 people on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.

No injuries were reported from the fiery accident, which news media said produced plumes of smoke that registered on Pittsburgh weather radar.

As of Saturday morning, residents located within a mile radius of the accident site were evacuated and others were urged to stay indoors while emergency personnel worked to control the fire.

The village’s mayor reported that the crew was unharmed in the accident.