Opinion: Sale of Cincinnati Southern Railway to Norfolk Southern is a Faustian Bargain

Norfolk Southern clearly qualifies as a poster child for corporate greed and neglect of community need, making it unworthy as a buyer of the cherished Cincinnati Southern Railway.

May 4, 2023 at 2:33 pm
click to enlarge A Norfolk Southern EMD SD60E rebuilt locomotive. - Photo: 4300streetcar/Wikimedia Commons
Photo: 4300streetcar/Wikimedia Commons
A Norfolk Southern EMD SD60E rebuilt locomotive.

Sale of Cincinnati Southern Railway to Norfolk Southern: A Faustian Bargain

In a classic drama by the great German writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a deeply troubled scholar, Faust, has a fateful encounter in his study with Mephistopheles, who appears as a noble squire and promptly announces his purpose (“I’m here your melancholy vapors to dispel”), for a price. Signed in his blood, Faust makes a pact with the Devil to exchange his soul for promised treasures and pleasures “to learn what life can really be." The promises were not fulfilled; instead, Faust’s compromised life was filled with a series of tragedies before it ended altogether dismally.

Similarly, the pending sale of the Cincinnati Southern Railway (CSR) to Norfolk Southern is a faustian bargain, one that sacrifices something of inestimable value for insecure material prospects. What will be permanently lost in this pact with Norfolk Southern is far greater than anything possibly gained. The CSR is a jewel in the Queen City treasure, and has been so for over 150 years. As the only municipally-owned long-distance railway in the nation, it confers a unique and enviable status upon Cincinnati. It shines as a beacon of hope and harbinger of things to come in an industry increasingly plagued with catastrophic derailments by privately-owned railroad companies, such as the notorious Norfolk Southern.

Public ownership, even nationalization of the railroad industry as is the case in most other advanced countries, is the wave of the future, one that can overcome the present incessant drive placing profit before people and endangering public health as well as worker safety. Privatizing the CSR would eliminate the only operative publicly owned railway in the USA, a monumental mistake at odds with the public interest and social ethics. It even defies wise money management. Money flowing into Cincinnati’s coffers under the current CSR lease agreement guarantees $25 million per year for infrastructure improvements in the city. Under the purchase agreement signed last November, there is absolutely no such guaranteed income, only speculation.  According to recent state law, should there be more than a 25% loss on speculative investments made by appointed financial managers from the $1.62 billion sale price, then the city receives nothing — nada — until the stock market loss is rectified, if ever. A lesson often painfully learned too late, amplified by recent bank failures, is that a bird in hand is worth more than two in the bush.

Then there is the troubling track record of the reckless buyer. From 2019 through 2022, Norfolk Southern had 67 derailments in Ohio, more than any other railway company operating in our state. Its catastrophic derailment on Feb. 3 this year destroyed the entire community around East Palestine. Massive amounts of ultra-hazardous pollutants were unleashed by a long-lasting fireball into the environment from the derailment itself, and more forcefully from the totally irresponsible detonation of five railcars containing over one million pounds of vinyl chloride resulting in an ominous dark mushroom cloud raining down carcinogenic toxins on everyone and everything for miles around.

The dire consequences of exposure to such dangerous compounds continue to be felt, and will for decades to come. Thousands of fellow Americans there are trapped in toxic cages with no viable means of escape. Calls for Norfolk Southern to purchase their contaminated property have fallen on deaf ears at Norfolk Southern corporate headquarters. Rather than invest in such life-saving measures, Norfolk Southern even had the audacity, in the first three months of 2023, to enrich its shareholders with a $163 million stock buyback, a sum which, if directed to property purchases in East Palestine, would have given hundreds of families the option to escape toxic cages imposed upon them by this negligent company. Such morally corrupt corporate practices make a mockery of its self-serving pontifications “to make things right” and “do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes."

Norfolk Southern clearly qualifies as a poster child for corporate greed and neglect of community need, making it unworthy as a buyer of the cherished Cincinnati Southern Railway. The pact made with this diabolical agent can and should be negated by Cincinnati voters. Unfortunately, one clause in that faustian bargain obligates the City of Cincinnati to “undertake all reasonable efforts…to facilitate the Cincinnati Voter Approval." Expect an intense pro-sale propaganda campaign to deceive Cincinnati voters in approving this faustian bargain. Don’t fall for it. Ring out the voice of the people to its perfidious perpetrators: NO SALE.

Werner Lange, Chair of the Ohio Peace Council, is a retired educator and former pastor with five grandchildren living in Cincinnati.

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