(NewsNation) — Rail accidents involving Norfolk Southern train cars carrying hazardous material have skyrocketed over the past decade, data from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) shows. Last year, 770 of the company’s cars carrying hazardous materials were involved in accidents, up from just 79 cars in 2012.
One Norfolk Southern staffer who spoke with NewsNation suggested that job cuts were to blame for the recent uptick. The rail company has shed roughly 40% of its workforce since 2015, according to filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
Others argue workforce reductions contributed to the latest incident in East Palestine, Ohio, where surveillance video shows the train may have had issues for over 20 miles before derailing. “They have made it where you don’t have to have a conductor in the train anymore, you just have to have an engineer,” said Emily Roark, an injury and accident attorney. “What’s important here is that train was on fire, we think for 20 miles. If there was a conductor in that train they would have been turning around and looking. They would have been saying, ‘Hey the train’s on fire, let’s get off the train.’ But they didn’t.”
Some experts have speculated that increased train sizes were also a contributing factor in the crash. New questions have also arisen about the company’s lobbying efforts to loosen railroad restrictions.
In 2022, Norfolk Southern spent $1.8 million lobbying the Department of Transportation, the Federal Railroad Administration and the White House. The company contributed an additional $1.3 million to members of Congress last year.
Specifically, the rail company has contributed to the campaign of U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, (R-Ohio) — whose district includes East Palestine — four out of the last six times he’s run for office. “Trains don’t just fall off the tracks accidentally, what happens is that train companies lobby Congress to make standards lower and lower,” said Roark. NewsNation has repeatedly asked for an interview with Norfolk Southern’s CEO Alan Shaw, though that request has not yet been granted.
In the meantime, the effects in East Palestine are impossible to ignore. Some residents have complained of headaches, possibly due to the burning of hazardous chemicals that were in some of the rail cars. Others have claimed their pets have gotten sick, or noticed dead fish turning up in the nearby creek. But the environmental impact is just one part of the story. Some residents are also feeling the pain financially.
Xana Doss owns a gas station in East Palestine and says her business is down. Doss has been fighting Norfolk Southern over a retaining wall on her property that she says has been ruined by their trains. She said she’s been trying to contact the company about the issue for a year, but nobody has responded. Now, the wall is just one of many worries. “My girls have had the itchy eyes, sore throat, headaches,” said Doss, who now fears her livelihood, as well as her health and safety, could be at risk after the derailment.