The Retired Investor: Efficiency vs. Safety in America's Railroads
American capitalism has long applauded and rewarded economic efficiency. Faster turnaround times, producing the same results with fewer workers, and doing more with less are the name of the game. Most times it works but sometimes it doesn't.
Over the past few years, that mantra of efficiency and profit growth has worked well for big freight operators in the railroad business. Wall Street has rewarded their efforts with higher stock prices and rail companies have returned the favor with generous dividends and stock buybacks.
Truth be told, America has had a long-lasting love affair with railroads that dates back almost 200 years. For most of that time, railroads and those that owned them were a symbol of the "can do" spirit of the nation. For decades, railroads flourished as their steel highways penetrated more and more of the nation carrying passengers and freight throughout the land.
In the 1950s, that began to change. The expansion of the U.S. highway system triggered a resurgence in the trucking industry. Inroads by long-haul truckers posed a threat to an industry that had grown fat and happy for way too long. That ushered in a long period of consolidation with fewer and fewer competitors.
As rail operators entered the 21st century, company management began to pay much more attention to productivity and efficiency. The number of employees was reduced, costs came down and profits began to rise and so did their stock prices. Over the last six years, railroads outdid themselves vying to become the most efficient, lowest-cost operator in the business. Today, only a handful of major companies remain and most of them are publicly traded companies in North America. They remain darlings of Wall Street for the most part and have spent as much in stock buybacks and dividends as they have invested in their businesses.
One obvious way to improve efficiency was simply to make freight trains longer since the railroad industry makes its money by the weight and distance of the cargo it hauls. You would think that workers could just string together a couple miles of cars together and off we go from point A to point B. After all, a long train makes in one trip what a short train would make in several, but it is not as easy as that. Trains must be assembled to distribute weight and cargo risk. Another issue is the length of railroad sidings. Many were never built to accommodate longer trains.
In any case, none of this was an issue for me until Feb. 3. It was on that date that 38 cars of a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. It is now three months later, since the fiery derailment, which caused about half the 5,000 residents of the town to be evacuated. At the time, officials decided to burn vinyl chloride from five tanker cars in the accident to prevent a catastrophic explosion.
Tens of thousands of tons of contaminated soil must now be excavated as well as the removal of toxic chemicals from two creeks. This will take months, leaving the inhabitants in limbo. The only thing positive that can be said about the disaster is that it has kicked off a national debate on rail safety.
In 2022, there were more than 1,164 train derailments in the U.S., according to the Federal Railroad Administration. That equates to roughly three derailments per day. That may sound like a lot, but most of these derailments occur within the confines of rail yards.
If you listen to the railroad industry, it is the safest period in the history of train transportation. The numbers appear to be on their side. Only 16 people, for example, were injured by derailments last year. Compare that to how many people are injured in car accidents each year. Since the late 1970s, derailments have dropped by 75 percent. Consider that in 1978 alone, there were 8,763 derailments, which killed 41 people.
Where do long trains fit into this equation? To be sure, there have been plenty of long train derailments, some serious. Are long trains riskier than short ones? The industry claims that long trains have improved rail safety. The Association of American Railroads, the industry lobby, also notes that regulators have never cited length as the direct cause of an accident.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) does say it lacks evidence that long trains pose a particular risk. They do fail to mention that the FRA does not require companies to provide certain information after accidents and derailments such as the length of the train. I would guess that does make it difficult to assess the extent of the danger.
As for me, I walk our dog every night along a major railroad track. It is close enough to our condo that the trials and tribulations of the people of East Palestine are with me every night. It devils my footsteps as I witness the long procession of car after car groaning and squealing its way into the city. The line of faint lights floating by sometimes requires half an hour or more to pass by in the night.
I confess that I worry that a derailment could spew toxic gas or chemicals throughout my neighborhood with no warning. I am sure I am not alone. Long freight trains traverse the nation. They are bearing God knows what through our communities. Long trains block traffic crossings for long periods. They are delaying everything from fire trucks to first responders, school buses, foot traffic, and daily commutes.
It is bad enough when the train is moving, but a resting line of cars can be an enormous temptation. In this country where "do not cross" does not apply to one too busy or important, the risk of sneaking under or between cars is an accident waiting to happen.
On the other hand, moving goods by rail is probably the safest way of moving cargo and people across the country. A single train with 100 cars of coal or grain would require hundreds of trucks to do the same job. It is much more fuel efficient and is therefore reducing our country's carbon emissions as more freight shifts from the trucking industry to rail.
I believe that somewhere there should be a balanced solution between the industry's need for 2-3-mile-long trains and the need for life-saving solutions for our communities. All we must do is find them.