‘Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’ Takes Aim At Train Companies’ Lack of Oversight

The Big Picture

  • ‘Last Week Tonight’ highlights the alarming number of train derailments in the U.S., pointing out that they happen due to lack of regulation.
  • The implementation of “Precision Scheduled Railroading” by Hunter Harrison prioritized cutting costs and maximizing profits for freight train companies.
  • The Federal Railroad Administration lacks the resources to adequately inspect and regulate freight train operations, leaving companies to handle it themselves, which is concerning.

After scoring a three-season renewal that will allow us to see its host reduce his own live expectancy on a weekly basis, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver was ready to go off the rails in this week’s episode. As it sometimes happens with the show, the main segment covered a subject that we never saw coming: Trains. But don’t worry, John Oliver makes it clear that the show is very much pro-trains. The problem is, of course, the companies that administrate them.

The point of the episode was to draw attention to the alarming number of derailments that happen with increasing frequency in the U.S. — just in 2022, there were 1,000 — and reveal that they tend to happen for a reason. While the freight train industry used to be heavily regulated, this is no longer the case thanks to a guy named Hunter Harrison.

He was known for implementing something called “Precision Scheduled Railroading,” which presented itself as guidelines to maximize transport efficiency, but it turned out to be a list of measures to cut costs and maximize profit for the six reigning freight train companies now operating in the U.S. Just to provide a little insight into the kind of guidelines that the PSR had, “safety” came #4 in the list of priorities defined by the program.

Image via HBO

Freight Train Companies Adopted Guidelines That Granted Them A Spot on ‘Last Week Tonight’s Main Segment

Not by chance, in the long term the PSR promoted lack of maintenance in freight trains, stimulated companies to apply a reduction of the workforce (freight trains are operated by a whopping number of two people) and adopt abhorrent practices such as asking workers to ask for their sick leaves one month in advance. At the same time, the PSR made sure freight trains started to get more cars, which made them significantly longer. In some places like Houston, this causes problems in traffic and threatens citizens’ lives and health when a 3-mile-long train has to stop for whatever reason and blocks traffic.

And, of course, it’s not like there isn’t an agency that has to regulate and control freight train operations. The problem is, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) only has the personnel to inspect less than 1% of the freight trains and railroads in the country, which leaves the other 99% for companies to do. As Last Week Tonight viewers know pretty well, companies are typically not good at regulating themselves. With all of this said and done, there’s nothing left to do other than use a bit of grim British stop-motion animation to illustrate just how badly handled freight trains are, as you can see at the end of the main segment below:

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