“While Mills’ claims and the video she recorded are chilling, she faces an uphill battle in receiving restitution due to the specter of qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that protects government officials from civil liability even when their actions are unconstitutional.”
“Rail workers, government officials, and industry analysts have long warned that such disasters are an expected consequence of an industry that has aggressively cut costs, slashed its workforce, and resisted regulation for years.”
“The $80 billion US freight rail industry, spanning 140,000 route miles, is the largest in the world and, according to the US Department of Transportation, the most cost-efficient, with one of the lowest accident rates.
The expansive freight rail network runs through just about every part of the country, connecting coastal metropolises to small towns in the middle, hauling 28 percent of freight in the US.
One of the challenges in a train disaster is that so many different actors are involved with varying degrees of responsibilities. Trains and rails are owned by private companies, which are in charge of their own maintenance and inspections. That also means that a lot of information about their operations is not public. Since rail is considered to be a vital national industry, the federal government plays major roles in regulating it.
But the government’s oversight is split confusingly among several agencies”
“There are ways to detect these problems in advance. Railroads have infrared sensors that can identify components that are starting to heat up, but these sensors can be upward of 20 miles apart while an overheated bearing can seize in two or three miles. A train conductor may not receive any warning.
According to Ditmeyer, one way to find these problems in advance is with acoustic detectors. Failing wheel bearings often start making a clicking noise, sometimes hundreds of miles before they start overheating, so acoustic detectors on tracks could buy operators a lot more lead time to address potential problems. Combined with radio tags on cars, the system can identify the exact car and axle that’s causing problems.
Better brakes are another important safety measure. A new generation of electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes for trains creates redundancy in the braking system and allows trains to apply brakes to all of their cars simultaneously. That means when a conductor slams the brakes, the cars don’t all run into each other. In a report last year, the FRA said that these brakes “improve both safety and braking performance of trains” but that train companies have been reluctant to invest in them due to cost.
The Obama administration created a requirement for ECP brakes at least on trains hauling flammable materials, but the Trump administration in 2018 revoked the requirement. “The Department’s analysis shows that the expected costs of requiring ECP brakes would be significantly higher than the expected benefits of the requirement,” according to a Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration statement.”
“the rail industry has been cutting its workforce for years despite turning record profits. Over the last six years, train companies cut 45,000 employees, 29 percent of their workforce. “In my view, all of this has directly contributed to where we are today — rail users experiencing serious deteriorations in rail service because, on too many parts of their networks, the railroads simply do not have a sufficient number of employees,” Martin Oberman, chair of the Surface Transportation Board, said in a statement last year.
In particular, the industry has relied on a system called precision-scheduled railroading that aggressively optimizes to run as much cargo with as few workers as possible. Rail workers don’t even get paid sick days. Congress last year had to intervene to avert a rail worker strike over poor staffing and sick leave.
Investor pressure to reduce spending can be more powerful than a locomotive, so it will take even stronger regulations and oversight to enact these safety measures and prevent such disasters in the future.
“There are things that could be done, the problem is they cost money to implement,” said Ditmeyer. “If railroads start shortening trains, Wall Street will punish them.”
Part of the problem is also psychological. Train wrecks grab a lot of attention, but it’s tough to convince local, state, and federal officials to have the resources in place before disasters unfold.
“It’s really hard to maintain that focus on preparedness,” Bierling said. “We cannot and should not be complacent.””
“Ohio’s new constitutional amendment will allow judges to set a dollar amount commensurate with a person’s criminal record, the seriousness of their alleged crime, and their odds of appearing at court following pretrial release. The Ohio Senate ushered the initiative forward in direct response to a ruling from the state’s highest court, which said in early January that bail could only be used to ensure a defendant’s presence at trial—the constitutionally prescribed reason for its use.
In Alabama, voters were tasked with deciding if the state should be able to deny bail for certain offenses if the government can convince a judge that the defendant poses a threat to the community or cannot be trusted to return to court. Those offenses include murder; first-degree kidnapping, rape, and sodomy; sexual torture; first-degree domestic violence, human trafficking, burglary, arson, and robbery; terrorism; and child abuse.”
“the debate has become increasingly politicized. Many reformers say that a dangerousness standard is racist, while law-and-order politicians are likely to present any bail reform as a driver of violent crime.
The answer is more nuanced than either major political party would want their base to believe.”