5 fast facts about Norfolk Southern, the profitable rail company with a long history of disastrous train derailments

As you’ve probably worked out by now, Norfolk Southern appears to have difficulty keeping trains on the tracks. About a month after the derailment incident in East Palestine, which leaked highly toxic chemicals into nearby waterways and later into the air, another train in Ohio derailed Saturday.

This time the incident was in Clarke County, on the opposite side of the state from East Palestine. Around 26 rail cars left the track, but there were no reports of injuries and the train wasn’t hauling any chemicals.

The East Palestine crash on Feb. 3 allegedly caused residents a range of health issues, including “headaches, rashes, respiratory problems and painful coughing,” according to multiple reports.

The chemical spill killed as many as 43,000 animals. Those mainly were fish and amphibious animals.

Norfolk Southern trains are involved in around 260 accidents per year, one of the highest among rail operators, according to federal data.

Here’s what we know about Norfolk Southern besides its questionable safety record:

The boss doesn’t show up

The company’s CEO is Alan Shaw, who has been a no-show for meetings with East Palestine officials and residents on two occasions. The 54-year-old has been with the company since at least 1994, according to his Linkedin. His salary is just short of $900,000 a year and he sold 2000 of his company shares on March 1st – banking him around $450,000, according to SEC filings.

The stock had been tanking since then, dropping from $252 a share on Feb. 3 to $225 on March 1. He retains more than 32,000 shares valued at roughly $7 million based on today’s stock price of $215.

Shaw is set to testify before a Senate’s Environmental and Public Works Committee on Thursday.

The company spends hundreds of millions in lobbying

Norfolk Southern has been accused of resisting increased safety measures through years of litigation and federal lobbying, according to a letter sent to Shaw by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in February.

The Norfolk Southern PAC gave $1.4 million to congressional candidates during the 2022 election cycle, according to data compiled by Open Secrets, a Washington DC-based non-profit organization that collects data on campaign finance and lobbying. Around $97,000 of that was given by Shaw personally.

Over the last two decades, the rail industry has spent $653.5 million on federal lobbying, an OpenSecrets analysis found. The largest contributions came between 2008 and 2012 while the industry lobbied against an act aiming to enforce antitrust laws on the freight railroad industry.

Read More: I lived through a chemical leak caused by a Norfolk Southern train derailment 12 years ago. Now, it’s happening again.

They’re making a ton of money

In that same letter, Norfolk Southern’s huge profits were laid out in full.

“Yours is an exceptionally profitable business,” noted Secretary Buttigieg in his letter.

Norfolk Southern’s operating income was $4.8 billion in 2022, according to SEC filings. It made $3 billion in profit. That is 8% higher, or $362 million more in profit, compared to 2021.

The Atlanta-based company also paid shareholders nearly $18 billion through stock buybacks and dividends -reportedly twice as much as the amount Norfolk Southern invested in its railways and operations, according to a New York Times report.

This isn’t the first time they’ve had a disaster

The company has a history of disastrous derailments.

In 2011, a derailment in Arcadia, OH, saw 25 tanker cars filled with ethanol burn up about two miles from the town. Around 20 families were forced to evacuate. A year later, 17 rail cars derailed in Columbus, OH. The cars exploded and split open, injuring one and forcing 100 people within a mile of the derailment to evacuate.

They’re owned by three investors

There’s no surprise here. The three largest shareholders are the top institutional investors in the country – Vanguard, Blackrock and State Street, which combined own about 17% of the company. Approximately 74% of the company is owned by institutional investors, with less than 2% going to company insiders and a little over 24% by retail investors, individuals who trade stocks.

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Christopher Harress

Christopher Harress |

Climate change reporter on the east and Gulf coasts.

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