Despite setting new records for profits each year for several years running, Class I freight railroads like CSX and Norfolk Southern constantly look for ways to cut costs. The corporations consistently focus on reducing staff, which often has the practical effect of making worksites less safe for the engineers, conductors, trackmen and mechanics who the railroads had to retain just to continue operating at all.
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One practice that has become quite common involves leasing company-owned rights-of-way to short line railroads. The leases allow an interstate freight railroad to continue using the tracks while paying fees to the short line. In return, the short line assumes responsibilities for maintaining the rails, ties, rail bed and grade-level crossings.
The Class I railroad realizes millions in cost-savings, and the short line collects guaranteed revenues. Accountants and economics consider this a win-win. It adds up to net loss for actual people, however.
The company with the fewest resources for straightening rails, replacing ties and ballast, and clearing sightlines along crossings ends up completely responsible for doing those things. And, certainly, a short line will not have the money or motivation to upgrade crossings with improved signage, stoplights and automatic gates.
When a derailment or crash inevitably occurs and inflicts serious injuries, preventable deaths and environmental damage, the short line also takes on liability. The Class I railroad, which still owns the tracks or crossing, has a contract that can absolve it from responsibility. Even though the larger corporation created a situation that compromised people’s health and well-being, it will suffer few, if any, financial consequences for placing profits above safety.