Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

An offer I won’t be taking up

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In my inbox this morning is the following offer


what can be done to reduce the number of train derailments, improve safety, and reduce risk to the communities and environment where trains operate? The solution is likely in a combination of AI, machine learning, better data management, and more efficient systems and processes.”

I have no doubt at all that this will be the preferred solution – or would be if the railways actually cared. But of course they won’t because the government won’t force them to. The offer comes from the US in the wake of the recent spate of derailments there, but the railways cross the border, and are just the same both sides. And the problem isn’t the lack of technology or data management, it is capitalism. The reason that safety is not getting the attention it deserves is the decision makers are looking only at the bottom line and the quarterly earnings statements. Like nearly every other company the emphasis is always on cutting costs, improving productivity and giving the shareholders a reason for holding their stocks or buying more of them. In fact when these companies get more money – as they did in large measure during the last three years as part of governments trying to cope with the pandemic – they buy back their shares.

The regulators, of course, are all hopelessly compromised. They are the servants of those they are supposed to be regulating. And since the politicians are nearly all right thinking conservatives of slightly different shades, not much action will be seen in legislation or resources to improve oversight. And the railway industry is not being treated any differently to any other regulated industry.

At one time it was likely that a catastrophe would cause the creation of some response that would try to change present practices. Now any catastrophe will simply be a short term blip in the news cycle, and then everything will go back to normal after the usual “thoughts and prayers” period of total inaction. The shares might even wobble a bit, as shareholders are a flighty bunch on the whole. But the returns will remain attractive and the venture capitalists will continue their hypocrisy and unconcern about anything other than profit maximisation. Because that is how the system has been shaped. And we continue to vote for the people who get paid from taxes – and whose re-election depends mostly on the amount of money they can raise.


About half an hour after I posted this, a news report from the New York Times appeared on my Mastodon screen

New York Times

Norfolk Southern put profits over safety, the Justice Department alleged Thursday in a lawsuit that seeks to force the company to pay cleanup costs and penalties under the Clean Water Act after the catastrophic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

New York Times

Norfolk Southern once had so few accidents and injuries that it won a safety award 23 years in a row. But now, federal officials are investigating the railroad’s safety practices and culture after worker deaths and the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

What did Norfolk Southern do with all the money it saved from cutting its workforce, running longer trains, and scrimping on safety?

Over the past two decades, it has boosted shareholder payouts by 4,500 percent. source: Robert Reich on mastodon

Written by Stephen Rees

March 31, 2023 at 10:25 am

Posted in Transportation

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