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Repeated rail accidents reveal governance deficits: China Daily editorial

chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2023-02-19 18:35

Drone footage shows the freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, US, Feb 6, 2023. [Photo/Agencies]

The derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, is just the tip of the iceberg. According to the US Bureau of Transportation statistics, there were 54,539 train derailments in the United States between 1990 to 2021, an average of 1,704 per year. Behind the repeated rail accidents are the federal government's poor governance of the country and the defects of US capitalism.

Compromised safety measures and a shrinking workforce are quoted by experts as the major cause of the East Palestine crash. Such disaster was judged to have been inevitable as the rail company is trying to maximize its profits.

The lack of electronically controlled pneumatic brakes was said to have aggravated the severity of the crash. Former US president Barack Obama passed legislation making it mandatory for trains carrying hazardous, flammable materials to have ECP brakes, but the order was rescinded in 2017 under a Donald Trump administration assault on "red tape". The National Transportation Safety Board has confirmed that the train of the Norfolk Southern Corporation that was derailed in East Palestine was not equipped with ECP brakes.

The rail company should have known how important it is for its freight trains carrying hazardous, flammable materials to have ECP brakes, but it places profits before safety.

And instead of playing the role of supervisors of the US federal government, politicians in Washington represent the interests of capital rather than the well-being of American people and the future of the US as a whole.

Too old and shabby infrastructure has long been a headache for the US economy and has contributed to the declining quality of life for people in the US.

The causes of the train accidents expose the myriad ways in which things can go wrong. A crack in a track that the Norfolk Southern Corporation and its contractors failed to initially identify or act upon after learning about it caused a derailment in 2018. A broken axle on a train car is thought to be the cause of the East Palestine accident this time. All these accidents point to the fact that much needs to be done to make US railways and other facilities safe and fit for purpose.

But nothing has been done in the past decades. It was not the least because seeking maximum profits is the ultimate goal of rail companies, which will never care about the healthy development of the railway industry.

Rail companies laid off more than 20,000 rail workers during a 12-month period in 2018 to 2019, representing the biggest layoffs in the rail sector since the Great Depression, and the railway workforce in the US has dipped below 200,000 – the lowest level ever, and down from 1 million at its peak. It is not because the development of the rail industry does not need a workforce of that size, but because cutting the size of the workforce reduces the operating costs and therefore increases the profits of the rail companies.

When seeking maximum profits is the primary goal, it is only wishful thinking that good governance can be realized for healthy social and economic development in the US.

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