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John Oliver's Take on Freight Trains and Thomas the Tank Engine (Train Crashes Part 3)

The Circle of Choo Choo Life:

 I think we should make a train version of “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King because  it seems like, sooner or later, railway-related discussions loop around to Thomas the Tank Engine (“From the time we arrive at the station / And blinking, step on Platform Nine …”). References to Thomas the Tank Engine have appeared on tv shows, movies, and YouTube videos, but the last place I expected to see a Thomas shout out is on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight (LWT). Last December, after I was finishing the outline of my first blog about train crashes, Oliver decided to do his main segment on U.S. freight trains (a transcript of the program can be found here).


I’ll get into what Oliver says about freight trains in a moment, but he starts by mentioning how the original British version of Thomas from the 1980s was “much darker” than the current CGI show. As an example, he discusses “The Sad Story of Henry,” which was Episode 3 from Season 1 (UK 1984). In the episode, Henry (aka Green Engine Number 3) refuses to come out of a tunnel because he doesn’t want the rain to spoil his “lovely green paint and red stripes.” Despite multiple efforts to get him moving, Henry won’t budge. So, Sir Topham Hatt basically says ‘screw it’ and decides to imprison Henry in the tunnel by taking away the rails and bricking up the tunnel openings. I’m pretty sure that many of us who saw the scene were traumatized by it. We worried that our own misbehavior would result in being locked away “for always and always and always,” as Sir Topham Hatt threatened to do (00:40). 


Henry in the forever hole

Henry in his "forever hole"


Oliver describes the corporate treatment of Henry as “stop complaining about work, or we’ll throw you in your forever hole,” and the episode ends with Henry looking forlornly from behind the brick wall while the narrator comments, “I think he deserved his punishment, don’t you?” (01:43). Yeah … no. To make matters worse, Beatles member Ringo Starr narrated with this low-energy, Eeyore voice, like he was going to let out a heavy sigh at any moment. 


Heavy sighs and groans are exactly the audience’s response once Oliver launches into his depressing explainer of how greedy corporate practices and a lack of oversight have led to dangerous conditions on America’s rails. 


Segment Recap: Oliver starts out by emphasizing that his show is very “pro-train” (02:20) because trains account for U.S. 28% of freight transportation but only 2% of transportation emissions, which make trains much better for the environment (02:42).  But the catastrophic derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, in 2023, revealed that America’s railway system is plagued with problems. The accident cost over $800 million in damages, and residents continue to suffer serious physical and mental health effects. 


Here are a few issues that Oliver highlights:


•In 2023, there were more than 1,000 train derailments in the U.S., which averages out to around 3 per day. Oliver shares clips of derailments in Phoenix, Arizona, the Mojave desert and Springfield, Ohio. (03:18).


•If a large city experiences a derailment of dangerous cargo similar to what happened in Palestine, Ohio, then it would experience a massive loss of life. One expert said that the only reason this hasn’t happened yet is “luck” (04:12).


•But the railway industry became deregulated in the 1980s because of the growing pressure to compete with trucking, which grew in the 1970s with improvement of the interstate highway system (05:07). Also, corporate consolidation resulted in over one hundred Class I freight railroad companies in 1963 being  reduced to six “massive, extremely powerful” corporations: BNSF, CSX, Canadian National, CPKC, Norfolk Southern, and Union Pacific (the “Big Six”) (05:20).


•The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), under the DOT, is responsible for overseeing the safety of freight railroads, but its inspectors are able to review fewer than 1% of the activities covered by the regulations (05:40). Which leaves the Big Six responsible for keeping the railways safe. (Insert maniacal laugh.) I’m sure there are plenty of safety-oriented people working at these companies, but I wonder how many of their safety recommendations are ignored by higher-ups whose main focus is on the bottom line.


Precision Schedule Railroading (PSR): One of Oliver’s biggest concerns is with the philosophy of Precision Schedule Railroading that originated with Hunter Harrison–a man who smiles like either he’s mid-colonoscopy (as Oliver suggests) or has an actual stick up his butt (10:05). The idea is simple–maximize profits by operating freight trains at maximum efficiency. According to Oliver, this means that railroad companies have “closed facilities, retired locomotives and railcars, and cut workers to lower costs (10:25).” It also means that companies schedule fewer trains to run but make them insanely long. Up to three miles long (11:40). Which means that engines hauling these miles-long freight cars can’t fit on many sidings, leading to them blocking railroad crossings for long stretches of time–sometimes even hours or a day (12:05).


This has led to people having to go through them, even if they could start at any moment. In fact, Oliver showed clips of children forced to crawl over or under freight cars on the way to and from school (13:10). Also, emergency vehicles can’t reach their destinations, so people have died and homes have burned when ambulances or fire trucks had to wait for the train to move (13:50).


Kid Crawling under Train

Kid crawling under train


According to Oliver, the policies of PSR are just as dangerous for railway employees. Trains once were required to have an engineer, conductor, and two trainmen in a caboose. But then cabooses were removed in favor of the ETD (End-of-Train Device), reducing the crew to just the engineer and conductor. Now it seems the Big Six want freight trains to operate with just a single engineer. As one union leader explained, “Look, if you add more and more cars to these trains, you’re introducing more and more points of potential failure” ( 15:41).


Also, workers are exhausted. Oliver points out that if there’s a mechanical breakdown, the engineer or conductor may have to walk miles to check on or fix the problem. Many companies force workers to schedule sick days at least a month in advance, as if the flu has “a Microsoft Outlook calendar where you can look at its schedule and book an infection that works for both of you” (17:18). BNSF only recently changed this policy, but others still have it. One worker noted, “You either go to work sick and tired, or you get fired. That’s really what this has come down to” (17:34). Not for nothing, when Harrison came up with the PSR priorities, he put safety fourth, after service, cost control and asset utilization (19:35).


This wasn’t mentioned in the segment, but I wonder if worker fatigue has played a role in many of the derailments and accidents. For example, in the 1986 Hinton train collision that killed 23 people, exhaustion and/or poor health were cited as reasons why the engineer didn’t apply the emergency brakes to minimize or prevent the accident.


The Bix Six point out that derailments have fallen 44% since 2000, but some portion of this is because there are far fewer runs. More recently, the rate has been rising again (21:17). Also, railroads have a culture of silence about where workers risk retaliation if they report health and safety violations. This is highlighted by a former BNSF track inspector who sued the railroad after his supervisor yelled at him for calling the FRA (18:30). 


The segment ends with a parody of Thomas the Tank Engine, where Henry derails in the middle of town, resulting in an explosion so big it looks like the island of Sodor got nuked (26:06). 


Sodor getting the nuke treatment

Sodor getting the nuke treatment


Takeaway: As Oliver points out, if you combine corporate greed and deregulation with poor oversight, then you’ll probably end up on a segment on his show (6:05). Honestly, it’s both sad and maddening that so many railways, as well as the ‘salt of the earth’ people who keep them running, are suffering because of corporate greed and corruption. One of Oliver’s key recommendations is that there needs to be a safe way for workers to report issues without fear of being demoted or losing their jobs. At the end of my college semesters, students were asked to evaluate the professor, and one of the questions was whether we felt comfortable talking to the professor about problems. It seems like most railroad workers would answer “nope” to this question.


My personal recommendation is to bring back the caboose and staff it with two people. We need more workers, not fewer, manning these miles-long freight trains. Finally, while I appreciate that railroads are competing with trucks and planes in the transportation industry, there should be more regulatory oversight of freight trains, as well as financial incentives to boost commercial railway use since trains are the most environmentally-friendly form of shipping goods. It’s long past time for America to make a huge investment in our railways.


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