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Photo: 4300streetcar/Wikimedia Commons

A restored Norfolk Southern EMD SD60E locomotive.

Sale of the Cincinnati Southern Railroad to the Norfolk Southern: A Faustian Deal

In the classic drama of the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a deeply troubled scholar, Faust, has a fateful meeting in his office with Mephistopheles, who is a noble squire and immediately announces his purpose (“I am here to dispel your melancholy vapors”) for the price. Signing with his blood, Faustus makes a deal with the Devil to exchange his soul for promised treasures and pleasures “to learn what life can be.” Promises were not fulfilled; instead, Faust’s life was filled with a series of tragedies. it ended quite miserably.

Likewise, the pending sale of Cincinnati Southern Railway (CSR) to Norfolk Southern is a Faustian deal that sacrifices something invaluable for uncertain financial prospects. What will be irrevocably lost in this pact with Norfolk Southern far outweighs anything possibly gained. CSR is a gem in the Queen City’s treasure trove and has been for over 150 years. As the only long-distance municipal railroad in the country, it gives Cincinnati a unique and enviable status. It shines as a beacon of hope and a harbinger of things to come in an industry increasingly plagued by catastrophic derailments by private rail companies like the infamous Norfolk Southern.

State ownership, even nationalization of the railway industry, as is the case in most other developed countries, is the wave of the future, which may overcome the current incessant drive to put profit before people and endanger public health as well as worker safety. Privatizing CSR would eliminate the only operating public railroad in the US, a monumental mistake that runs counter to the public interest and social ethics. It even challenges smart money management. The money flowing into Cincinnati’s coffers under the current CSR lease guarantees $25 million a year for infrastructure improvements in the city. According to the sales contract signed last November, there is absolutely no such guaranteed profit, only speculation. Under a recent state law, if losses from speculative investments made by appointed financial managers total more than 25% of the $1.62 billion sale price, the city will get nothing — nada — until the stock market losses are corrected, if in general. A lesson often painfully learned too late, as evidenced by recent bank failures, is that a bird in the hand is worth more than two in the bush.

In addition, there is a disturbing track record of being a reckless buyer. From 2019 to 2022, Norfolk Southern had 67 derailments in Ohio, more than any other railroad operating in our state. Its catastrophic derailment on February 3 this year devastated the entire community around East Palestine. Huge amounts of ultra-hazardous pollutants were released into the environment in a sustained fireball from the derailment itself, and even more so from the completely irresponsible explosion of five railcars containing over a million pounds of vinyl chloride, resulting in an ominous dark mushroom cloud. carcinogenic toxins on everyone and everything for miles around.

The dire effects of exposure to such dangerous compounds continue to be felt and will continue to be felt for decades to come. Thousands of Americans are trapped in toxic cells with no viable escape routes. Calls for Norfolk Southern to purchase their contaminated property have fallen on deaf ears at Norfolk Southern’s corporate headquarters. Instead of investing in such rescue measures, Norfolk Southern even had the audacity in the first three months of 2023 to enrich its shareholders with a $7.5 million share buyback, an amount that, if it had been used to buy real estate in East Palestine, would have given hundreds of families the opportunity to escape the toxic cages imposed on them by this careless company. Such morally corrupt corporate practices make a mockery of its egotistical “fix everything” and “do whatever it takes, however much you want” pontification.

Norfolk Southern clearly qualifies as the poster child for corporate greed and disregard for community needs, making it unworthy as a buyer of the cherished Cincinnati Southern Railroad. The pact made with this diabolical agent can and should be overturned by the voters of Cincinnati. Unfortunately, one of the clauses in this Faustian bargain obligates the city of Cincinnati to “make every reasonable effort … to promote the approval of the voters of Cincinnati.” Expect an intense propaganda campaign to trick Cincinnati voters into approving this Faustian deal. Don’t give up. Open the voice of the people to your insidious executors: I WILL NOT SELL.

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

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