“The Wreck of the Old 97” is a classic bluegrass song recounting a spectacular train crash in 1903, caused by the company’s demand that the engineer speed down a dangerous track to deliver cargo on time.
Fully 120 years later we have the “Wreck of the Norfolk Southern” — a devastating crash caused by the company’s demand that it be allowed to run an ill-equipped, understaffed, largely unregulated, 1.7 mile train carrying flammable, cancer-causing toxins through communities, putting profit over people and public safety.
This rolling bomb of a train was hardly unique, for the handful of multibillion-dollar railroad giants that control the industry also control lawmakers and regulators who are supposed to protect the public from profiteers.
A measure of their arrogance came just two years ago, when an Ohio legislative committee dared to consider a modest proposal for just a bit more rail safety. Norfolk Southern executives squawked like Chicken Little, asserting a plutocratic doctrine of corporate supremacy on such decisions. They even imperiously proclaimed that state lawmakers have no right to interfere in safety matters.
Ohio’s Chamber of Commerce dutifully echoed Norfolk’s concern for profit over people, testifying that “Ohio’s business climate would be negatively impacted” by the bill. Never mind that Ohio’s public safety climate can literally be “negatively impacted” by train wrecks!
Plunging deeper down the autocratic rabbit hole, the Chamber insisted that corporate control over workers is sacrosanct. It postulated that a crew-safety provision in the Ohio bill was illegal because it “would interfere with the employment relationship between employers and their employees.”
Yes, that’s a corporate claim that executives have an inalienable right to endanger workers.
Sure enough, bowing to the corporate powers, Ohio lawmakers rejected the 2021 safety bill. And that is why, 120 years after the wreck of the old 97, train catastrophes keep happening.