In April, Norfolk Southern Railway announced a $250,000 donation to the nonprofit American Forests for tree planting in Detroit, which the company says is part of an effort to plant 75,000 trees in the city.
But the move has provoked consternation among some environmental advocates in the city.
“Don’t get me wrong, Detroit needs trees,” Michelle Martinez, director of the University of Michigan’s Tishman Center for Social Justice and the Environment and a longtime Detroit environmental justice advocate, told Planet Detroit. “But I guess the real question is, why is Norfolk Southern, a company whose trains have derailed in Michigan and East Palestine just this year, focused on forestry and not stronger safety rules?”
The question is especially pertinent since Detroiters may be particularly vulnerable to a rail disaster.
“We have a lot of rail in Detroit that hugs up to homes, churches, and playgrounds,” Martinez said.
Some examples are Cesar Chavez High School and Middle School and Frank Beard Elementary Schools, which sit next to a Norfolk Southern line in Southwest Detroit. And a popular flea market takes placein a parking lot on Vernor Highway next to Detroit Intermodal Freight Terminal (DIFT) where Norfolk Southern and several other companies operate.
Companies are quick to tout rail freight’s relative safety and environmental benefits compared to trucking. Yet for those living near railroads, they bring fear of derailments, stopped trains that can cut communities off from emergency services, and associated truck traffic that may increase pollution and safety risks.
American Forests spokesperson Michele Kurtz said Norfolk Southern’s investment comes at the end of a year-long process that involved “thorough vetting.” But it also arrives at a fraught moment for American railroads, with high-profile derailments raising safety concerns in metro Detroit and railroads like Canadian Pacific Kansas City (CPKC) expanding their operations there.
Rail experts say Southwest Detroit could see increased rail and truck traffic because of the Gordie Howe International Bridge, linking southwest Detroit to Windsor, Canada.
Norfolk Southern’s tree-planting announcement comes as the company is in talks with the city of Detroit and Michigan’s Department of Transportation about the Detroit International Freight Terminal yard at Livernois and Vernor, according to MDOT spokesperson Jeff Cranson.
A plan put forward in 2008 would have increased the facility’s footprint, bringing more trains and potentially thousands more trucks to the already significantly polluted area. In June, Michigan announced that Norfolk Southern would receive $5 million in state grant dollars for facility improvements at the DIFT yard.
Meanwhile, Cranson said rail ties are being replaced on the state-owned line between Detroit and Kalamazoo, where Norfolk Southern, Amtrak, and CPKC all operate. This could allow for longer trains, which may carry larger quantities of hazardous chemicals and cut communities off from emergency services when stopped at street-level crossings for extended periods.
State Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) recently introduced rail safety bills that would limit train lengths to 7,500 feet, roughly a mile and a half long, and require at least two people to staff all trains operating in the state. Norfolk Southern submitted a card to the legislature to register their opposition to the bills.
A renewed focus on train safety
In February, the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio, brought greater scrutiny to the company’s operations in Michigan, partly because massive quantities of toxic soil and liquid were brought to metro Detroit hazardous waste facilities. Yet railroad officials point to the relative safety of trains compared to trucks. In 2021 trucks carrying hazardous materials had 22,372 accidents, while trains had just 378.
However, when rail disasters do happen, they can be significant due to the quantity of material being moved. For example, in 2013, a train carrying crude oil derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, destroying 40 buildings and killing 47 people. Communities like Southwest Detroit could be at risk because they see high truck and rail traffic.
Train accidents are also increasing, especially on Norfolk Southern tracks. Between 2013 and 2021, the company saw an 82 percent increase in its accident rate, which tracks the number of incidents against miles traveled.
The accident rate appeared to climb dramatically around 2018 when the company adopted Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR), a management strategy that increased the length of trains and cut the number of employees.
“They want to do more with less,” said Don Roach, Michigan legislative director for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers.
Roach said that longer trains often incorporate differently weighted cars, increasing the strain on certain parts of the train and risking derailments.
“They put a really long block of empties in the middle, and then they put really heavy loads on the rear of the train, so when the train slows, or when the train accelerates, you have excessive forces on those empty cars in the middle,” he said.
Roach said this dynamic can create a “string-line” effect, where the weight on the train’s rear holds the empty cars back as the engine pulls forward, leading the cars in the middle to jump the tracks when they move through a curve. He says string-line derailments often happen in Detroit at a curve on the train tracks near Scotten St. and Michigan Ave, a section of rail co-owned by Norfolk Southern and CSX, also used by other companies.
Reducing train lengths might help prevent some of these derailments, and Roach said that the 7,500 feet proposed in Geiss’ legislation wasn’t arbitrary.
“Our handheld radio devices, they’re only really reliable up to that length,” he said.
Norfolk Southern has also come in for particular criticism because of its high rate of worker injuries and whistleblower complaints. Since 2018, current and former workers filed 267 complaints with OSHA, more than any other major railroad. Over the same period, Norfolk Southern shareholders pocketed roughly $18 billion in stock dividends and buybacks.
Concerns were raised locally shortly after the East Palestine disaster when 30 cars from a Norfolk Southern train jumped the tracks in Van Buren Township in February, although there were no injuries, and no toxic material was released.
In April, Kristine Donahue, president of Taylor, Trenton and Wayne hospitals, told lawmakers that stopped trains had delayed ambulances, with one patient dying after being stuck at a railroad crossing.
Southwest Detroit may be less vulnerable to problems with stopped trains because many crossings pass over roads by viaduct, although recent derailments on these spans have closed roads when rail cars were left hanging over roadways.
Yet in southwest Detroit’s Delray neighborhood, street-level train crossings still create problems, cutting residents off from emergency services. Simone Sagovac, project director for the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition, said cars in Delray are routinely stopped for 20 to 25 minutes by long trains, and a “45-minute delay is not unheard of”.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a bill on July 11 to create a grant program for funding grade separations. This bill, which is funded by public dollars, was widely supported by groups representing railroads and industry.
More trains and trucks could be on the way
Geiss’ safety legislation arrives at a critical moment when train and truck traffic could increase in Southeast Michigan. Cranson with MDOT said in an email that meetings were taking place between the agency, the city of Detroit and Norfolk Southern and other companies to discuss DIFT and the Livernois Yard and “determine priorities/needs moving forward.” When asked about specific plans for the Detroit Intermodal Freight Terminal, a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern declined to comment.
The 2008 plan for the DIFT yard proposed a 169-acre expansion that would have increased Norfolk Southern and CSX activity there. An earlier environmental impact statement from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration estimated the project would increase train traffic from 12 to 50 trains per day and bring an additional 16,000 trucks daily.
Nicholas Little, a rail and supply chain expert at Michigan State University’s Broad School of Business, said the opening of the Gordie Howe Bridge could bring additional truck and rail traffic to the area, potentially requiring an additional train yard.
The DIFT yard could become a hub for this cross-border shipping. The area has become a hot spot for complaints about truck traffic, mainly due to heavy vehicles using Livernois south of Vernor and passing through the primarily residential area.
If plans for expanded truck and train facilities move forward, Sagovac said it will be essential to listen to workers and community members about how impacts from expanded rail and trucking activity could be mitigated. For example, when the DIFT expansion was first discussed, community members asked for the number of entrances and exits from the facility to be decreased to limit impacts from trucking.
“So often community has their finger on the pulse more than more than the decision makers,” she said. “Yet, we’re at the mercy of these people who make the decisions.”