Smoke cloud over East Palestine, Ohio
Gene J. Puskar via Associated Press

‘32 Nasty:’ Rail Workers Say They Knew the Train That Derailed in East Palestine Was Dangerous

A freight train carrying toxic chemicals derailed 50 miles outside Pittsburgh, forced thousands to evacuate, and created a toxic cloud. Workers knew the train had safety issues.
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On the evening of February 3, Norfolk Southern train 32N derailed just outside of East Palestine, Ohio, 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. Thirty-eight of the train’s 150 cars plowed into each other and thundered to the ground. Some of the cars then burst into flames, and the flames damaged another 12 cars. 

Of those dozens of derailed cars, five were tankers containing vinyl chloride, an industrial chemical used to make hard plastic. Breathing in vinyl chloride, which can happen if it gets into the air or water supply, is a known risk for various types of cancers


Initially, the tankers containing the vinyl chloride did their jobs, protecting the dangerous chemical from leaking. But a rapid temperature change made Norfolk Southern worried the tankers wouldn’t hold, which would produce a massive explosion and release the known carcinogen into the air and ground just outside a town where thousands of people live. They chose to burn it instead, creating a giant smoke cloud that rose high into the air.

It is too early to say what the long term impacts, if any, of 32N’s derailment will be. It is also too early to say what caused 32N to go off the rails. But it was not a surprise to some people who work for Norfolk Southern. They have been warning that something like this, or even much worse, was inevitable.

Motherboard has been reporting on the freight rail industry for two years, during which time we have interviewed dozens of Norfolk Southern employees across the company’s service area about how a change in management philosophy has made working conditions worse and jeopardized safety in exchange for supposed gains in efficiency. This article includes many details about the company’s safety practices Motherboard has previously reported on. 


In the past week, Motherboard has also interviewed two workers with direct knowledge of 32N. Those two workers have provided additional details about 32N included in this story that shed light on the train’s reputation in the months before its derailment. Motherboard also reviewed  documents showing details of the train’s weight distribution by car and broken down by sections of the train. As with previous reporting on the freight rail industry, Motherboard is not revealing the names of those workers because they are fearful of retribution for speaking publicly. 

For years, Norfolk Southern, like several other major freight rail companies, has prioritized moving trains as quickly as possible out of terminals and rail yards over safety as part of a wider move across the freight railroad industry towards a management philosophy called Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) intended to move more freight for lower costs. Safety inspection times and personnel have been slashed, hindering efforts to ensure trains are safe before they leave yards or terminals. Crews are dissuaded from reporting safety issues. Workers that persist in raising red flags are often ignored. 

Norfolk Southern spokesperson Jeff DeGraff previously told Motherboard for a story on the safety impacts of PSR in 2021, “Norfolk Southern is firmly committed at all levels to operating safely, protecting our employees and the communities that we serve.”


Do you have any information regarding 32N or safety practices in the freight rail industry? We’d love to hear from you. Email the reporter Aaron Gordon at

“Two years ago SMART [a transportation union] President Jeremy Ferguson warned your publication and anyone that would listen that something like this was going to happen,” one of the Norfolk Southern employees Motherboard spoke to this week said. “They’re going to keep happening if regulators continue to allow this business model to ravage our nation’s freight rail system in the pursuit of profit. My fear is that these corporations have so much money and political influence that nothing is going to change.”

Over the past several years, Motherboard has reported that Norfolk Southern’s lax safety practices have been applied to its entire network, reflecting a trend happening across the freight rail industry. But the two workers Motherboard spoke to this week said 32N in particular was a known safety risk. Like airline flight numbers, railroads assign the same train number to different physical trains that run the same routes on a repetitive schedule. 32N, which travels from outside St. Louis to the edge of Pittsburgh, has a reputation. 

On the run that ended abruptly on the outskirts of East Palestine, multiple red flags, including two mechanical problems, about 32N went undetected or were ignored in the hours leading up to the crash, according to the two workers familiar with the train. These red flags were especially concerning, said these workers, because 32N is widely known among workers as a difficult train to run, not because of especially difficult terrain or equipment, but as a result of management decisions about how the train would be put together. 


As a result, 32N has a nickname among some rail workers. It is common for trains to have nicknames in the railroad industry, but, as one worker told Motherboard, the nicknames are given “for a reason.” They call this one “32 Nasty.”

In a statement, Norfolk Southern spokesperson Connor Spielmaker told Motherboard that “Assigning a ‘reputation’ to a train that fluctuates by thousands of tons on a regular basis is inaccurate” and that whatever the size of this particular run of 32N, it used to be bigger. “More importantly, this train previously ran as one longer and heavier train before being split into two shorter, lighter trains in the past few months as part of a regular review of our network plan—where we adjusted a significant number of our trains and their schedules.” Spielmaker also disputed the assertion that the train’s weight was unevenly distributed, calling it “false” because the weight was “uniform throughout.”

Three days after the derailment, with the tankers containing vinyl chloride in a critical state, the Ohio National Guard as well as the governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania forced thousands of people from the town and surrounding areas to evacuate. Norfolk Southern conducted a “controlled release” of the tankers. This involved blowing holes in the tankers, leaking the vinyl chloride into a trench, and setting it on fire. The operation created a gigantic smoke cloud that garnered apocalyptic comparisons.


Officials warned, according to the Associated Press, “the controlled burn would send phosgene and hydrogen chloride into the air.” Phosgene was one of several toxic chemicals used in World War I as a chemical weapon. Hydrogen chloride has strict exposure limits because overexposure can result in chemical burns, respiratory failure, and death.

Authorities insisted the operation was a success and the air was safe enough for residents of the town and nearby areas to return three days later, even though some residents said the air smelled strange and, according to local media reports, animals started getting sick and dying.

“I’ve talked to crews in other areas who know of this train,” said Clyde Whitaker, the Ohio state legislative board director for SMART Transportation, a rail worker union, who specializes in safety issues, referring to 32N. “It’s a notorious train.”

‘Safety Fourth’

In 2021, Motherboard reported there was an increasing likelihood of a catastrophic freight train derailment due to the implementation of Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR), a management philosophy its defenders argue uses technology to improve efficiency, but workers say is a euphemism for draconian staff cuts, lax safety practices, and slashed maintenance to pad corporate profits. Norfolk Southern was not the first or the only freight rail company to implement PSR.

Norfolk Southern announced the implementation of PSR in February 2019, promising investors it would improve its “operating ratio”—how much it spends to run trains as a percentage of how much it makes running trains—by more than five percent in two years. It would do that, in part, by reducing its workforce by a minimum of 3,000 people. Under PSR, the industry as a whole has slashed its workforce by more than a third in less than six years, according to data collected by the Surface Transportation Board. As Motherboard reported in 2021, “Across the different crafts, workers highlighted the same general problem: in the push for efficiency, fewer workers are being tasked with more, rushed through safety-critical inspections and repairs, and are pressured not to report defects or potential safety issues that will take cars out of service and require manpower to fix.” 


At the time Motherboard published that story in 2021, Norfolk Southern spokesperson Jeff DeGraff told Motherboard, “Our comprehensive approach mirrors that of the freight railroad industry, including significant private investment, employee training efforts, technology implementation, regular inspections, and community outreach, which has led to dramatic safety improvements over the past two decades with respect to train accidents and employee injuries."

The warnings expressed by industry insiders in Motherboard's reporting, Congressional hearings, proposed regulation change comments, and other forums have not changed working conditions for rail workers. The House transportation committee requested the Government Accountability Office study the issue, which has no regulatory power, resulting in a 57-page report published at the end of last year. The report did little more than summarize existing talking points.

The precise impact of PSR on railroad safety is difficult to say because it has been implemented gradually across the industry at the same time as other safety initiatives, experts have previously told Motherboard. In the time PSR has been implemented, a legally-mandated backup train control system called positive train control intended to prevent trains from going too fast has come into effect, as have regulations around tank car valves carrying hazardous materials, reducing the number of reported spills.


Whitaker, SMART’s Ohio legislative director, worked for 20 years as a conductor and engineer for CSX, the first of the large railroad companies to commit to PSR, but says he has seen the impacts of PSR rattle the industry. He told Motherboard the safety implications of PSR is a “very complex issue because it involves so much,” the tentacles of the management philosophy reaching every aspect of the organization. This sentiment was matched by every employee Motherboard spoke to over the last two years, the two Norfolk Southern employees we talked to this week, and has been widely reported in both industry and mass media in recent years—including Motherboard’s own reporting—particularly last fall during the labor dispute that briefly made national headlines. Local managers are beholden to high-level metrics that mandate they hit certain targets for getting trains moving and sticking to schedules. As the targets got more stringent to improve operating ratios and therefore profits, the tension between efficiency and safety, workers say, has become untenable. A key aspect of the labor dispute last fall was the eroding patience of rank-and-file workers across the industry being tasked with doing more with less, with obvious safety implications, while reading about record profits and stock buybacks every quarter.


“As a railroad Engineer, I'm a highly trained and professional operator of the largest land vehicle known to man,” an engineer from Norfolk Southern told Motherboard in September during the height of the labor dispute. “I'm constantly fatigued and sleep deprived and usually get called at all times of the night. I love my craft and I'm very good at it. However, the draconian system that we work under currently is sub-human and not sustainable.” 

Car inspections have experienced some of the biggest cuts. Norfolk Southern management has gradually reduced the amount of time workers are allowed to spend inspecting trains for defects before they leave rail yards. About seven years ago, according to Motherboard’s previous reporting and confirmed by Whitaker, management set a recommendation that workers spend no more than two and a half minutes per car. In recent years, that time limit has dwindled to less than 90 seconds per car—not enough time, workers say, to actually inspect anything, when cars can be up to 100 feet in length. Norfolk Southern did not answer Motherboard’s question about the issue of car inspections in its response.

Because of staff cuts, workers who used to inspect hundreds of cars a day now have to inspect a thousand or more, according to multiple Norfolk Southern employees Motherboard interviewed in 2021. They said that managers will pressure workers not to report safety defects they discover, because fixing them will hurt PSR metrics such as the amount of time trains spend in the terminal, which, under PSR’s philosophy, is supposed to be as little as possible. But, if they don’t report a defect and something catastrophic happens on the rails, workers feel vulnerable, believing the company will try to pin responsibility on individual workers not following official protocol. As a result, workers feel they operate under two different, often contradictory rulebooks, one official to maintain a pretense of safety and one unofficial intended to keep trains moving. In this sense, one mechanic who worked for Norfolk Southern for 13 years, told Motherboard that workers can “kind of be screwed one way or the other.” 


After PSR’s implementation, two Norfolk Southern employees in 2021 told Motherboard they were given a safety presentation by the company that listed on-time performance, train speed, and the duration of time trains spend in the yard as more important metrics than safety. Afterwards, the shop developed a running joke that, to the workers, felt in keeping with the company’s emphasis: “Safety fourth.” At the time Motherboard reported on this presentation, a Norfolk Southern spokesperson said the company was “firmly committed at all levels to operating safely.” 

But PSR has been good for shareholders; Norfolk Southern reported record profits of $4.8 billion from operations in 2022. In March 2022, it announced a $10 billion stock buyback program.

It is too early to say if these car inspection policies, or any Norfolk Southern policy, had anything to do with 32N’s derailment. But the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the derailment, confirmed the authenticity of doorbell camera videos that showed a car axle on fire about 20 miles before the derailment. Trackside monitors called hot box detectors, placed every 10 to 20 miles, are supposed to alert crews and dispatchers if a wheel is heating up to dangerous levels. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the 20-mile distance between the footage of the axle on fire and the derailment raises questions about whether the monitors were working properly. In theory, the monitors should detect a hot wheel or axle long before it is on fire. 


Jennifer Gabris, a spokesperson for the NTSB, said, “The NTSB investigation is ongoing into the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern freight train derailment near East Palestine, Ohio. Engineers from the NTSB Materials Laboratory will examine the rail car wheel and axle that potentially experienced a mechanical issue.” A later update by the NTSB said a preliminary report is expected to be published by the end of February.

Heavy Load

One consequence of PSR has been longer trains to save money on staffing. All trains have the same number of workers on board, so running one longer train with more cars on it is more profitable for companies than running two shorter ones. 32N, with its 150 cars, was almost two miles long. It was also heavy, weighing more than 18,000 tons, according to two people familiar with 32N and documents obtained by Motherboard showing the train’s weight distribution.

But it is not just the overall length and weight of a train that matters for safety, but the distribution of that weight. According to the train’s load profile, confirmed by two workers familiar with 32N’s load profile and reported by the cross-union worker solidarity group Railroad Workers United, 40 percent of the train’s weight was in the rear third of the train’s length, and the back half was the heavier half. This is the opposite of long standing railroad best practice, which calls for trains to be frontloaded with the heaviest cars and the lightest at the back. But rearranging train cars takes time and manpower, both of which have been cut under PSR. As Motherboard has previously reported, trains are routinely sent onto the tracks in violation of these century-old best practices in order to save time and labor costs. The longer the train, the tricker it is to control, because cars could be in different situations; for example, the front of the train could be going downhill while the back is going uphill, according to an influential white paper written by Grady Cothen, a former Federal Railroad Administration safety official on the dangers of long trains under PSR. 


Spielmaker, the Norfolk Southern spokesperson, disputed that the train’s weight was uneven: “The weight distribution of this train was uniform throughout, so to state that the weight was mostly in the rear is simply false.” When asked in a follow-up question if the company disputes that 40 percent of the train’s tonnage was in the rear third of the train as measured by length, Spielmaker replied, “The train had 141 loaded cars and 9 empties that were distributed equally throughout the train. There was not an unequal distribution.”

There is no evidence that the load profile of 32N was a contributing factor to the derailment. But it’s possible it made the derailment worse than it otherwise would have been. The weight distribution of a train matters, Whitaker explained, because of the forces it exerts while accelerating and decelerating. Freight trains have slack between cars. When the train is moving, it stretches as it is pulled from the front, and when it brakes it comes together. 

There are different ways to manage this slack. Some of 32N’s cars had regular draw bars which manage the slack, while others had cushioned draw bars that allow for extra slack. One worker likened cushioned draw bars to giant rubber bands. And, according to the load profile of the train viewed by Motherboard, nearly all of the cushioned draw bars were in the middle of the train, with the train’s heaviest third behind those. Whitaker likened this effect to a bowling ball attached to the end of a slinky attached to your ankle. When you’re moving, you’re dragging that bowling ball behind you. When you stop, the further away the bowling ball is, the harder it’s going to roll into your ankle. That many cushioned draw bars with that much weight behind them, Whitaker explained, means the slinky is longer and the bowling ball is heavier. 

“In looking at various accidents—and I’ve looked at over 100 of them at this point—these cars,” Cothen told Motherboard, referring to ones with cushion draw bars “tend to be over-representative, it appears, in the derailment that involves significant pileups, or where those cars were a triggering mechanism.”

If the heavier load is at the back, trains experience unintuitive and dangerous dynamics, especially during braking. The heavy cars at the back will push against the lighter ones in the front. In extreme scenarios, those forces can be so high that they push cars up and off the rails, resulting in derailment. If a derailment happens, heavier cars plowing in will be more likely to result in explosions and ruptured tankers due to the extra force.

Due to the nature of the cargo 32N routinely picks up, and the order in which it is picked up, 32N has developed a reputation among Norfolk Southern employees, according to Whitaker and the two employees familiar with 32N. It is typically long and heavy at the back, the trickiest kind of train to run. Before PSR, railroads would take the time to re-arrange the cars of a train to ensure the heavier cars were towards the front. Now, with an emphasis on speed and profitability, they often don’t, according to the two workers. This is how 32N earned the nickname “32 Nasty.” 

“This train is notorious for breaking knuckles or drawbars or some other malfunctions,” Whitaker said, referring to the mechanical elements that link cars together or provide extra slack between them. This was confirmed by the two Norfolk Southern employees familiar with 32N. 

Spielmaker, the Norfolk Southern spokesperson, said “The makeup of this train changes daily, with the number of cars, loaded or unloaded varying. Assigning a ‘reputation’ to a train that fluctuates by thousands of tons on a regular basis is inaccurate. More importantly, this train previously ran as one longer and heavier train before being split into two shorter, lighter trains in the past few months as part of a regular review of our network plan —where we adjusted a significant number of our trains and their schedules.”

Before this particular run of 32N derailed, it suffered what is called a broken knuckle, referring to the joints where two rail cars connect, according to Whitaker and confirmed by the two Norfolk Southern employees familiar with 32N. Spielmaker did not directly comment on the broken knuckle but said there was a distributive power unit (mid-train locomotive) on the train “which helps manage the dynamic forces of the train and reduces occurrences of broken knuckles, etc.”

Broken knuckles are not uncommon, and it occurred long enough before the derailment it is unlikely to have been a contributing factor, Whitaker said. Broken knuckles can be caused by several things, one of which, according to the white paper, is “poor train makeup or poor train handling.” In such cases, a broken knuckle may be an indicator the train is harder to control.

Whitaker said, “It goes to show the train is hard to operate because of the way it’s built. A seasoned engineer is typically not going to get a knuckle unless there’s something wrong there. I’ve had to operate trains like it myself and when you have loaded tank cars on the end sloshing around, you can feel that slosh in your seat on those cars. It can catch up to you kinda quick.”

The makeup of this particular 32N was so heavy at the back that even employees who have worked under Norfolk Southern’s PSR regime for years remarked on it. The two workers with direct knowledge of 32N told Motherboard they were aware of concerns being raised to managers about its load profile. They said those concerns were dismissed, which workers say is a consistent pattern since PSR has been implemented. They also said that, as bad as 32N was, they’ve seen worse.

Workers dealt with their concerns the same way they have ever since PSR took over the industry: by using gallows humor. The two employees told Motherboard they’re aware of other workers familiar with this particular run of 32N remarking that if any train was going to make headlines, it was going to be this one.