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The Need for Speed

Is the push for railroad profitability harming the towns they serve?

We are huge supporters of railroads. We're big fans of efficiency, prosperity, and speed, too. Combining railroads with all of these things should be something that we and rail-connected communities across the nation support whole-heartedly.

And yet, often, as much as we want to, we can't.

Today's ProPublica article (“Do Your Job.” How the Railroad Industry Intimidates Employees Into Putting Speed Before Safety) shines a light some of the reasons why that's the case.

By my reading, the article identifies four root problems.

  1. Profit-First Priorities: Regardless of what their stated missions or values might say, the real-world behaviors of each of the railroads discussed in this article suggests they prioritize profits and efficiency well above safety on a seemingly regular basis.

  2. Pay-for-Performance Incentives: Railroad supervisors appear to be primarily rewarded for their top-line efficiency, even when that comes at catastrophic cost to the safety of their employees or our communities.

  3. Inadequate Reporting & Transparency Policies & Practices: Unlike airlines, railroads aren't required to report near-miss incidents. With little oversight or transparency required outside of catastrophic incidents, Railroads are mostly able to keep real-world safety issues to themselves without penalty - even when those issues remain unresolved.

  4. Fear of Retaliation: Workplace culture actively discourages proper reporting and actioning of safety issues that would otherwise diminish performance-linked payouts.

The outcomes discussed are beyond troubling:

  1. Safety Incidents are Underreported: The pay-for-performance and fear of retribution combine to ensure that upper management, the FRA, and our communities don't know when and where safety issues exist. This becomes a significant contributing problem of its own.

  2. Employee Health & Safety Issues: Worker safety has not been improving for at least a decade. Fear of retribution impacts physical and mental health, with higher stress, panic attacks and other significant issues resulting.

  3. Legal Battles & Employee Distress: Retaliatory actions against employees who insist on reporting safety concerns - whether using internal methods or reporting to state authorities - are not uncommon. Inadequate reporting and lack of transparency are largely at fault. Note that these legal battles continually reinforce the threat of retaliation for employees who may otherwise consider correctly reporting safety issues.

  4. Ultimately, Railtowns are Not Safe: The underreporting of safety issues and incidents means that our rail-connected communities are regularly exposed to risks that have no reason to exist - other than profitability. There is no working mechanism to prevent a train entirely consisting of unsafe engines and cars from passing through our cities if the people responsible for identifying them are overruled, threatened, or terminated.

The resulting situation from all of this - and other challenges like blocked crossings and active communication - is unsustainable for our member railtowns and the rail-connected community at large. We're becoming less safe, inaccessible and prosperous. We fully support railroads in their pursuit of profits and efficiency, right up until they achieve those goals by sacrificing railtown safety, accessibility, and prosperity. All of this appears to be happening. We're here to make things right.

I'll write more in the coming days about how we're moving forward.


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