Students and activists rallied at Norfolk Southern headquarters to push for the nationalization of the railroads in the wake of February's East Palestine train derailment. Railroad Workers United organizer and Amtrak engineer Ron Kraminkow tells us why public ownership of the railroads is necessary.

In the wake of Norfolk Southern’s derailment disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, a simmering push to nationalize the railroads is gaining steam.

At a lively rally outside Norfolk Southern’s Midtown Atlanta headquarters on March 11, a group of about 50 students and activists waved signs saying “Nationalize the Railroads” – something Railroad Workers United has been advocating since 2012.

Railroad Workers United, a national inter-union caucus of rank-and-file railroad workers, helped organize the rally with students from the Atlanta Youth Democratic Socialists of America.

Atlanta Civic Circle spoke with Ron Kaminkow, an organizer on Railroad Workers United’s national steering committee, to find out what’s behind the push to nationalize freight railroads. 

Public ownership of the railroads has been a long time coming, says Kaminkow, who’s been a railroad worker for 27 years. He started out as a brakeman, and became a conductor, then engineer for Conrail, Norfolk Southern, and now Amtrak.

From his perspective, freight rail conditions and service have gotten worse, as rates to customers have drastically increased because private railroad corporations are putting profit over safety and service.

“Railroad owners are worried about reaching high levels of profit, which means cutting labor and cutting investment,” said Kaminkow. “There’s no [brake] electrification, no investment in [equipment] upgrades, compromised safety, and no upgrades in tracking.” 

Kaminkow said private ownership of the railroads also has caused the freight rail industry to shrink. “Seventeen years ago, we moved more freight than we move today,” he said. “The economy has expanded over the last 16 years and trucking is booming. You’d expect rail to at least maintain its numbers or even grow by 5% to 6%. Instead, we’ve declined by 21%.” 

That decline matters environmentally, he said, because trucks create significantly more emissions per ton-mile than rail. 

Kaminkow and Railroad Workers United believe nationalizing freight rail is the only way to improve safety, service and the economics of the industry–and to stop future hazardous train derailments. 

“We have the biggest rail network in the world and it’s a huge lost opportunity,” said Kaminkow. “When things are publicly owned, there’s a better chance the industry will actually serve the public and the economy.” 

Lawmakers raising concerns about railroads

Concerns that railroad corporations are compromising the safety of both their workers and the cities and towns their trains run through have spiked following Norfolk Southern’s train derailment last month in East Palestine, Ohio. 

When Norfolk Southern burned the vinyl chloride and other chemicals leaking from derailed tanker cars, it released an alleged 1.1 million pounds of hazardous chemicals into the community’s air, water and soil. 

In the wake of the disaster, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) went on record to CNN about the problems caused by railroad ownership’s lack of investment. “There’s no question [Norfolk Southern] caused it with this derailment because they underinvested in their employees,” Brown said. 

The East Palestine train derailment was not a surprise to rank-and-file railroad workers who followed the negotiations with union leadership, rail ownership and Congress after workers threatened to strike last summer for better working conditions and pay. 

After Congress stepped in to stop workers from striking in December, we spoke with CSX engineer Angel Poventud in Atlanta about the issues facing rail workers and their demands. Like Kaminkow, Poventud said ownership’s lack of investment in both workers and equipment because of their desire to maximize profits has caused safety issues down the line. 

Not only do short staffing and lack of time off create day-to-day safety concerns, but ownership’s stance toward railroad workers has sharply increased turnover, Poventud said.

Railroad ownership] wants to go to one-man crews. Over the years, they’ve been able to eliminate a lot of work rules that say there needs to be three or four people on an engine. With the new systems, they want you to go to one person on an engine. They’re doing a lot of modernization, trying to get to a place where they can go from two of us [which is the current system] on the engine to one.

Angel Poventud

Public ownership isn’t new

The push for public ownership of the railroads isn’t new. It dates all the way back to the early 1900s when Eugene V. Debs ran as a socialist candidate for president and made nationalizing the railroads a central part of his platform. The nationalization campaign has bubbled up many times since. 

Kaminkow says public ownership of rail is actually the norm worldwide and American railroads are the anomaly. 

“In our country, virtually all public infrastructure is publicly owned. Interstate highways, state highways and country roads are publicly owned,” said Kaminkow. “Freight traffic moves on waterways–and private companies own the boats–but the waterways and ports are municipally owned and maintained.” 

In most countries, railroads are publicly owned railroads, Kaminkow said, citing India as a specific example due to its large population and need to move freight.

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1 Comment

  1. Hey, just so you know, when discussing railroad infrastructure and trains, nobody who knows anything about them will say electrification to mean break electrification. The “break electrification” you refer to is not something people who know railroads generally are worried about, as it is unimportant to safety when compared to proper maintenance. The electrification refered to is generally in reference to the supply of power to locomotives and powered equipment from wires.

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