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Rail News Home Safety

June 2023

Rail News: Safety

On safety, service and 'doing the right thing': Rail CEOs address customers at NARS '23


By Pat Foran, Editor

Four Class I CEOs delivered keynotes during the North American Rail Shippers Association’s annual conference held May 24-26 in Chicago. Each discussed the need to improve safety and service, while three said taking a “business as usual” approach to improving either won’t cut it. 

Yes, rail is the “safest mode of land transportation, including hazardous commodities,” as BNSF President and CEO Katie Farmer told attendees. But the industry can get and needs to get safer. Not because of Norfolk Southern Railway’s Feb. 3 derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, but because the point is to have “zero tolerance for safety failure,” as NS President and CEO Alan Shaw put it.  

“I believe we’ll be better coming out of all this,” said CSX President and CEO Joe Hinrichs. “It’s forced us to share best practices, something the industry hasn’t been doing very well, in my opinion.” 

As for service: It wasn’t good in 2022, and although it’s improved for a couple Class Is, it’s nowhere near where it needs to be to earn shippers’ trust. “The way we deliver on our promise to our customers is through our people,” and providing employees more predictable work schedules and a better work-life balance will help, Farmer said.  

“[But] if we’re going to change, we have to put our customers first,” Hinrichs stressed. If they don’t, railroads probably aren’t going to grow, he added. 

NS to East Palestine: ‘We’re going to be here’ 

Shaw addressed growth, achievable in part by putting employees and customers first, at NS’ investor day in December 2022. “We have a vision of what a better way looks like going forward,” he told NARS attendees. The Ohio derailment required NS to put the people of East Palestine first. 

So far, NS has invested millions in the community’s recovery, but it’s not about money, Shaw noted. “The people want to know we’re going to be there,” he said, adding that 300 NS employees and contractors work on recovery activities daily. Shaw himself returns weekly. 

Being there also means zeroing in on zero tolerance for safety failure. 

“We’re going to be the gold standard on rail safety, so we went to the nuclear navy,” Shaw said, noting NS recently enlisted Atkins Nuclear Secured to review its safety culture. 

For NS, the aim in East Palestine is to do the right thing, and the next right thing every day, said Shaw. “That’s all you can do in a crisis,” he said. 

That’s all you can do to earn anybody’s trust. Be it a community, customer or family member. 

“I’ve got four kids. They’ve seen this thing, front and center,” Shaw said. “They’ve seen a lot of things said about me and NS. They want to see I’m doing the right thing. That NS is. I want to be a role model.” 

To me, Shaw’s been one. For his children. And for the industry.

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