ProPublica: Railroads prioritize speed and efficiency over safety, cutting costs ProPublica analyzed 600+ train accident reports from 20 years, raising questions on whether longer trains with fewer crews cause more derailments. Reporter Dan Schwartz discusses the findings on NPR.

Report: Railroads cut costs, prioritize speed and efficiency over safety

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Since 2012, nearly all of North America's biggest railroad companies, such as Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern, adopted precision scheduled railroading, or PSR, as their standard way of operating their freight train service. The U.S. Government Accountability Office put out a report in December where they spoke to railroad companies, worker unions and shippers. And while nothing is set in stone for what defines PSR, they all generally agree that reductions in staff and longer trains are the basics.

DAN SCHWARTZ: In the past, about a 1.4-mile-long train was considered huge. Now trains are two, even three miles long.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Dan Schwartz. He and his colleagues at ProPublica dove in to examine precision scheduled railroading.

SCHWARTZ: Long trains are just one tenet of PSR. Other things they're doing to reduce cost is they've dramatically laid off a lot of their workforce. So since 2015, they've laid off about a fifth, and a lot of those cuts have been in maintenance workers. There's fewer people to catch trains in disrepair. Also, these longer trains, another tenet, tend to require more maintenance because they've got more components, more stress on those machines. And another big thing they're doing is they're trying to get the trains moving quicker in and out of the yards 'cause an idle train makes them no money.

MARTÍNEZ: For railroad companies, precision scheduled railroading has allowed them to cut costs and boost profits. And despite data from the Federal Railroad Administration showing that last year the country averaged roughly three train derailments per day, the railroad industry claims PSR has led to fewer problems. However, what do railroad professionals say?

SCHWARTZ: The problem is there's not very good data out there, and that's a little bit of a quandary of the regulator's own making. But, you know, when we talk with people in the industry outside of the industry looking into the industry, basically experts, they say long trains are not necessarily more dangerous. But under this system of PSR, doing more with less, the conditions are ripe for long trains to be dangerous. You know, those dangers are not being mitigated.

MARTÍNEZ: Is it because precision scheduled railroading is still fairly a new thing and maybe there isn't enough time that's gone by to really get some data, or are these things just not being looked at?

SCHWARTZ: It was really more the latter. The Federal Railroad Administration - they're really the sole regulator of safety on the railroad industry, the FRA. They for nearly two decades have been noting long trains and long trains derailing and crashing. But they've never been systematically recording data on these long trains. We looked at more than 600 of their investigative reports going back to 2005 to 2020. And we found nearly 20 derailments of long trains in which they crashed for reasons associated with their length. You know, it paints a pretty alarming picture. But the FRA is still not convinced of their danger, and they've never been recording systematically the length of trains, which means we can't draw any trends from, you know, the universe of trains running in the U.S. And it's really - we just have anecdotes.

MARTÍNEZ: So there's no rules, regulations, protocols when it comes to making trains longer, because just common sense to me, Dan, makes me think, well, if something is longer, it might be harder to control.

SCHWARTZ: Yeah. You're correct on that, A. We've talked to a lot of workers. An engineer who drives the train often needs more training to handle a long train. They aren't given that. You know, there's a lot of other requirements that should be met to satisfy safety concerns. But to date, there's no regulation capping the length of trains. Of course, Congress could step in at any time and try to do something about that. State lawmakers have tried. In every instance we've seen, they've been rebuffed by courts saying only the feds can regulate the railroad industry.

And the Federal Railroad Administration, the FRA - they could impose an emergency order or something along those lines to cap the length of trains. But they told us that, you know, to do that would require good data so that they could make a strong argument that wouldn't get slapped down in court. And well, they just - they've never been recording the data.

MARTÍNEZ: That train in East Palestine, Ohio, had 150 cars attached. Did the length of that train play a factor in the crash, or was it something else?

SCHWARTZ: So far, it doesn't seem the length of that train played a factor. That train was 1.8 miles long. What investigators believe did cause that derailment was an overheated wheel bearing. But even there, even though the length probably didn't play a factor, it does seem, according to our reporting at ProPublica, PSR played a role in that derailment. We learned that Norfolk Southern, the company that owned that train, has a policy that allows that help desk to wave crews off of an alarm. And that very thing happened late last year in October in Sandusky, Ohio, with a Norfolk Southern train.

It had a hot wheel. It tripped a detector. The detector told the help desk, you've got a problem here. The help desk told the crew, continue on. And then minutes later, the train derailed and dump molten wax on what is normally a very busy street. Fortunately, no one was on the street at the time, got injured. But it's - you know, that kind of policy is very typical of precision scheduled railroading. It prioritizes moving trains quickly and efficiently over safety.

MARTÍNEZ: Ultimately, what do you think it's going to take to get people thinking about this a little bit more, at least offer some kind of real investigation and study into what this is and if it's safe enough for the rail industry to continue using it? I mean, I understand - if it's something that's more effective and cuts down on costs and increases profit, I can understand how, you know, a business would want to do it. But if it's causing or if there's even a chance that it's causing all of these derailments, why wouldn't anyone think, hey, we should kind of take a pause and figure this out?

SCHWARTZ: I think that moment might be now. This East Palestine derailment is an incredible disaster, and it's really captured the national consciousness. And, you know, trains are in the mainstream news in ways that they haven't been in the past. I would think that would lead to some action in Congress on this to give either the FRA some more teeth or maybe get the FAA started on a rules-making process to put some more regulations on the industry. But I can't imagine all of this pressure, all of this attention on the railroad industry and some positive change doesn't come out of it.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Dan Schwartz, a reporter with ProPublica. Dan, thanks.

SCHWARTZ: Thank you, A.


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