The Times’ investigation of Norfolk Southern, by reporters Peter Eavis, Mark Walker and Niraj Chokshi, following the East Palestine derailment found that the rail line’s accident and employee injury rate had soared, giving it the worst safety record among the nation’s four major railroads.

The reporters conducted extensive interviews with a Norfolk Southern locomotive engineer who was fired by the railroad after he refused to operate a train that he said had defective brakes that could have led to a derailment.

Hundreds of whistleblower complaints have been filed by employees against the rail line and since 2012 while the size of Norfolk Southern’s workforce has declined by 39 percent, the Times found. That workforce reduction exceeded the rates of competitor rail lines, BNSF and CSX and Union Pacific. Meanwhile, Norfolk Southern’s accident rate soared 80 percent, the Times reporters found, the largest increase among the four rail lines.

Over the past decade, the employee injury rate has also risen.

The Times reporters also found that the rising accident and injury rate occurred at a time when railroads have boosted profits by squeezing ever greater efficiencies from their rail operations.

The technique, known in the industry, as precision scheduled railroading, involves strictly adhering to operating schedules, cutting staff and cars and running longer trains. The practice has made railways very profitable, but also raised concerns that the push for greater efficiency and profits has come at the expense of safety.

Challenges Faced by Reporters

Every important newspaper investigation poses hurdles that reporters must overcome to find out what happened. The Times report was no exception.

Eavis, a long-time business reporter at the Times, said railroad accident tables maintained by the Federal Railroad Administration were so antiquated that usable data at the outset was not readily available. The reporters solved that problem by extracting data from the federal database and reformulating tables in a way that showed the accident rate for each railroad.

Another hurdle was finding railroad workers who were in a position to talk about safety problems at Norfolk Southern. That was an obstacle the reporters overcame through simple persistence.