It’s been a year since the day East Palestine became known across the country.
We’ve been encouraged by the efforts of Norfolk Southern to take responsibility for the events, invest seriously in remediation, and for beginning to seriously engage with and participate actively in communities across their network.
So, we approach the recent news of a potential investor takeover with trepidation.
I have no connection to Ancora, so can’t speak to their intent, but those familiar indicate that this is being driven by dissatisfaction with profitability - particularly when measured against their East Coast peer - CSX.
What I do know is that Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) as typically implemented today is disruptive to the communities in which Railroads operate. But our members tell us Norfolk Southern in particular has been working to adapt PSR in ways that reduce that impact. It can be as simple as stopping trains before they get into town so that they’re not blocking traffic as they wait for service.
To pursue PSR and profitability over all else will absolutely lead to short-term gains. We don’t deny it. But it also makes the likelihood of increased oversight and regulation all but inevitable. Congress is already considering safety legislation, and could empower the FRA to limit train length and blockage times if things don’t improve in railtowns. The net effect will make all railroads less profitable.
Nortfolk Southern has been embracing opportunities to make things better. They were the first Class I to embrace the anonymous safety reporting program. They invested in community engagement aimed at helping all their host communities, not just throwing money at a few towns for PR value.
They were the first Class I to ask us how they could help us make a difference in the quality of life for rail communities.
It might not seem like it, but that’s a very big deal.
We’re still working to identify every railtown in America, but our current estimates suggest there are more than 14,000 of them. Details are hard to come by, but back-of-the-napkin math suggests 90% of Americans live in towns in proximity to passenger or freight rail.
Railroad/community interaction impacts just about all of us. We think Norfolk Southern has been on the right ‘track’ to reach longterm success.
For the sake of the industry, our railtowns, and the well intentioned executives at NS, we hope they find a way to keep moving forward.
We’ve reached out to other Class I railroads, industry non-profits, and supporting vendors to talk about how community engagement drives the health of the industry for decades to come. We’ll update as those conversations develop.