Working as a rail car inspector for Norfolk Southern is a tough gig these days, especially for those who must travel near East Palestine, Ohio. A number of folks there remain angry over Norfolk Southern’s treatment of residents who continue to suffer from the effects of a Feb. 3 derailment that spewed toxins over the community.

“Some of my guys will be in a Norfolk Southern truck, going somewhere, and people will be giving them the finger,” said Dennis Sabina, president of Transit Workers Union Local 2035 and a Norfolk Southern carman. He and his colleagues inspect the rail company’s cars at Conway. Sabina understands the residents’ anger but said it’s misplaced.

“We work just like you do,” he said. “We need paychecks just like everybody else. The guys you should be mad at are in suits and ties on Wall Street, not the workers.”

Those “suits and ties” people have been making life miserable for carmen, Sabina said, and it’s mostly due to cutbacks by Norfolk Southern. In the past decade, the number of carmen at Conway has been cut in half, to about 50.

The result: Inspections take longer, and the work is “lower quality.”

The impact on workers?

“Morale is terrible,” Sabina said. “It’s been terrible, for everybody in the whole company. They’ve cut back so much in every department.”

Dennis Sabina, president of Transit Workers Union Local 2035 and a Norfolk Southern carman, participates in the news conference in Darlington on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023. At left is Darlington Township Supervisor Mike Carreon. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Sabina joined U.S. Rep. Chris Deluzio, D-Aspinwall, in a Friday news conference to discuss railroad safety issues — and a piece of legislation the two said would serve as a corrective. They, along with Darlington Township Supervisor Mike Carreon, gathered with a handful of reporters in a Darlington fire hall, 6 miles from the East Palestine derailment site — close enough for residents to see and smell the smoke that filled the air when cars ran off the tracks and burned seven months ago.

They, like many in the East Palestine area, continue to raise concerns about the presence chemicals such as vinyl chloride, a cancer-causing agent that was burned off a few days after the derailment. Images of that event show what looks like a fiery volcanic eruption in the midst of the small Ohio town. A number of people likened it to a mushroom cloud.

“Norfolk Southern shattered folks’ sense of safety and security,” Deluzio said. “Residents were scared about their health, their livelihoods; they were uncertain whether the air, soil and water was safe, whether their animals were safe. The recovery is not over, and while Norfolk Southern and other massive railroads would like the public to forgive and forget the toxic derailment, we’re not going to let them.”

All this damage to nearby communities and residents, he said, is the result of huge corporations that cut expenses to increase profits, no matter the risk to communities.

“Since 2002, Norfolk Southern has slashed its workforce by a third,” Deluzio said. “Inspectors used to have three minutes to inspect a car; now they have one. As a consequence of those decisions and many others, derailments are skyrocketing.”

The United States is averaging about three train derailments each day, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. In 2022, at least 1,164 derailments occurred across the country, the agency reports.

It’s a specific concern in the Pittsburgh region, which has a long and historic connection to the railroad industry. Tracks line the rivers and cut through communities. Residents grow accustomed to the rumble of heavy trains, the shriek of locomotive whistles.

“Life in places like Western Pennsylvania means you live near the tracks for a lot of folks,” Deluzio said. “These tracks are all over our neighborhoods, our region, the city of Pittsburgh. There is density and a lot of people who live within a mile or two of the lines. We were lucky no one died in East Palestine. Something like this happens again, whether it’s in a small town or a big city, the risk of people dying and getting hurt much worse than we saw here is substantial. We can’t be treated as expendable by these railroads.”

Railroad companies such as Norfolk Southern, he said, “don’t care about us if we are in the way of their profit, and I can’t accept that. That goes to why we can’t trust them to regulate themselves.”

Railroad companies such as Norfolk Southern “don’t care about us if we are in the way of their profit, and I can’t accept that,” said U.S. Rep. Chris Deluzio. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Deluzio called on congressional leaders to push forward a bill designed to make railroads safer by tightening regulations and increasing penalties for companies that fail to meet stricter standards. Deluzio and U.S. Rep. Nick LaLota, R-N.Y., introduced the legislation in March, and since then it has attracted bipartisan support.

The legislation is a companion to a Senate bill called the Railway Safety Act of 2023. That bill, like the House version, enjoys bipartisan support. It was introduced by two Democratic senators — John Fetterman of Pennsylvania and Sherrod Brown of Ohio — and one Republican, Ohio’s J.D. Vance. Pennsylvania Democrat Sen. Bob Casey joined as co-sponsor, as have Republican Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marco Rubio of Florida. The White House also backs the bill.

Deluzio said the legislation would increase safety in a number of ways, including requiring minimum staffing of at least two people on freight trains, instituting higher fines for accidents like the East Palestine derailment, strengthening the safety requirements for the transportation of hazardous materials, increasing the frequency of inspections, and assisting first responders by improving the sharing of information.

The act also requires the Department of Transportation to issue safety regulations aimed at reducing the number of blocked railroad crossings, which, Deluzio said, “hurts people all across this district and make it slower for first responders to respond to emergencies.”

Violations would prove more costly for railroads that defy the law. Deluzio said the current maximum fines of up to $250,000 — what he called little more than a “rounding error” in the company’s overall budget — would increase to 1% of the railroad’s operating revenue.

“So for Norfolk Southern, going back to 2022, they could face fines of up to $47 million,” he said.

The Senate version awaits a floor vote — Deluzio said he’s hopes that happens soon — but the House version has yet to get a committee hearing. He’s hoping Senate passage will build momentum for the House version.

“There are enough Republican co-sponsors of my bill with full Democratic support to pass this law,” he said.

Railroad companies are lobbying against the bill, Deluzio said. Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw has said he supports some parts of the legislation but has criticized the minimum staffing requirement. Other critics say the bill’s requirements would drive up costs. Deluzio pushed back on this.

“If a company can afford to pay its CEO $4 million and provide billions in stock buybacks, it can afford to better protect our communities,” he said.

Sabina, the union official and carman, grew up in the Beaver County steel town of Ambridge — in fact, he says, he could see railroad tracks from his house. He joined Deluzio in urging passage of the bill and said safety could be further improved by requiring domestic production of rail components.

“You can go out and save money and buy a rail made in Mexico, let’s say,” he said. “Is that going to hold up as well as American-made steel? I don’t think so.”

He stressed the American railroads’ interconnection with the rest of the nation’s economy. “It’s like a big chain,” he said. “Cutbacks affect everybody — the truck drivers that come in and pick up pipe, the UPS drivers — we carry a lot of UPS stuff. And when you have a derailment, the UPS deliveries are delayed or even ruined.”

Like Deluzio, he talked about the railroad industry’s heavy presence in the Pittsburgh region, the way in which tracks pass through rural areas, small towns and larger cities. Trains with tanker cars often pass through the heart of Pittsburgh, rumbling over the massive Fort Wayne Railroad Bridge, 40 feet above the Allegheny River, and brushing past the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

A derailment in a densely populated area such as this “would be catastrophic,” Sabina said as he stood in the Darlington firehouse on Friday. “There are a lot of people between here and Pittsburgh. There are thousands of people who could be affected by a derailment. Imagine if it happened by the convention center. How many people are in that area on a daily basis? It needs to be safe; it needs to be regulated.”

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at

Steve Mellon

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at