SACRAMENTO, Calif. (PAI) – Rail workers scored a big safety win in California on August 21 as state lawmakers gave final approval to a bill mandating two-person crews on all freight trains.
The measure, pushed by the Teamsters and their California affiliates, the Rail Division of SMART – the former United Transportation Union – and the state labor federation, now goes to Gov. Jerry Brown, D-Calif., who is expected to sign it.
Rail unions nationwide have been pushing for the two-person crews while the rail carriers have been pushing for just one, an engineer. Several months ago, the head of one carrier, the Burlington Northern, advocated crewless freights.
The unionists told lawmakers presence of a second crew member would cut down on horrific crashes such as the one that obliterated downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec, two years ago. Then, a runaway oil train crashed and exploded, killing 47 people. That train had only an engineer. There has been a string of similar U.S. accidents since, especially of oil-carrying trains. Recent oil train accidents were near Galena, Ill., Lynchburg, Va., and in West Virginia.
The proposed California statute requires trains and light engines carrying freight within the nation’s largest state – home to one of every eight Americans – to be operated with “an adequate crew size,” reported Railroad Workers United, a coalition of rank-and-file rail workers from SMART, the Teamsters and other unions.
The minimum adequate crew size, the bill says, is two. Railroads that break the law would face fines and other penalties from the state Public Utilities Commission. The commission supported the bill, SB730.
“Today’s freight trains carry extremely dangerous materials, including Bakken crude oil, ethanol, anhydrous ammonia, liquefied petroleum gas, and acids that may pose significant health and safety risks to communities and our environment in the case of an accident,” said sponsoring State Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Solano.
“With more than 5,000 miles of railroad track that crisscrosses the state through wilderness and urban areas, the potential for derailment or other accidents containing these materials is an ever present danger. I urge the governor to sign this bill into law, providing greater protection to communities located along rail lines in California, and to railroad workers.”
“California has nearly 7,000 miles of railroad track that winds through both wilderness and urban areas, making train safety a priority issue,” said California Labor Federation spokesman Steve Smith. “SB730 will help to protect railway workers, the public, and the environment from freight train derailments by ensuring trains operate with a two-person crew.
“The labor federation is proud to support this critical legislation and we’re urging the governor sign it into law.”
The rail workers union and Railroad Workers United have also pushed for two-person crews at the national level, but they’ve run into indifference, at best, in the Republican-run 114th Congress. Meanwhile, the carriers lobby federal regulators to let them have one-person crews.
Dennis Pierce, President of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the Teamsters Rail Conference, told the U.S. House Transportation Committee in June that while another safety measure – positive train control (PTC) – would also help cut down the possibility of accidents, it’s no substitute for two-person crews.
“PTC can’t replace the second crewmember,” Pierce said then. “It doesn’t provide a second set of eyes and ears trained on the road ahead or monitor the ‘left’ side of the train for defects like hot wheels, stuck brakes or shifted lading, or observe the ‘left’ side of highway-rail grade crossings for drivers who fail to stop, or separate stopped trains that block crossings to allow first responders to cross the tracks.”
SMART, the Teamsters and other rail unions and workers are pushing the Safe Freight Act (HR1763), mandating the two-person crews, introduced by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the senior Republican in the House.
SMART Transportation Division President John Previsich said, “The safest rail operation is a two-person crew operation. With several major train derailments having occurred in the last few months…our lawmakers and the general public must understand that multi-person crews are essential to ensuring the safest rail operations possible in their communities. No one would permit an airliner to fly with just one pilot, even though it can fly itself. Trains, which cannot operate themselves, should be no different.”
Repost from The Ecologist [Editor: An excellent cheeky overview. I’d like to see this documented: “This phenomenon [catastrophic oil train explosions] has become so common that the train engineers who run them actually call them “bomb trains.” – RS]
#StopOilTrains – How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb train
Stephyn Quirke, 9th July 2015
Two things are new in the Pacific Northwest, writes Stephyn Quirke: abnormally hot, dry weather that has even killed Chinook salmon on their run upriver to spawn; and ‘bomb trains’ a mile or more long carrying thousands of tonnes of oil, with just a single sleep-deprived driver on board. What could possibly go wrong?
Is our weather getting funny?
Some bushes and flowers started to bloom near the end of January this year, and in the spring cherry blossoms were blooming weeks early. This capped a winter with extremely low snowfall in the Cascade Mountains.
The abnormal heat, combined with the drought now covering 80% of Oregon, has actually raised temperatures in the Willamette River above 70 degrees, recently killing Chinook salmon as they made their way up-stream to spawn.
In March, tribal leaders from the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians converged in Portland to discuss this ongoing phenomenon of strange weather, which they cannily dubbed ‘climate change’. These changes, they said, were related to a pattern of global warming, and were creating unique hardship on Northwest tribes.
In 2013, the ATNI also passed a resolution opposing all new fossil fuel proposals in the Northwest, citing harm to their treat rights, cultural resources, and land they hold sacred. Now the Affiliated Tribes are discussing plans for adaptation and mitigation, and asking how to undermine the root causes of climate change.
And that’s not all. Now there’s mile-long oil trains
In addition to the sudden onset of strange weather, Portland has also seen the abrupt arrival of strange, mile-long trains loaded with crude oil – a very unusual sight in the Northwest until just two years ago.
In the event of a derailment or crash, these trains are known to increase the temperature of surrounding areas by several hundred degrees – a strange weather event by any standard. This phenomenon has become so common that the train engineers who run them actually call them “bomb trains”.
While the danger of unplanned explosions is universally recognized, the risks of strange weather, and the planned explosions that take place in our internal combustion engines, are typically less appreciated. But the connections are becoming more obvious as the figure of the oil train valiantly pulls them together.
The sudden appearance of oil trains in the Northwest is one effect of the unprecedented crusade for oil extraction in North America – one that has produced a massive wave of opposition from residents and elected officials.
In Washington state alone, nine cities representing 40% of the state’s population have passed resolutions that oppose oil trains. In Alberta resistance to oil politics recently replaced a 44-year ruling party with socialists. And in Portland, anger against oil trains just smashed a city proposal to bring propane trains into the port.
In recent months rail workers have become increasingly vocal about the industry-wide safety problems that lead to fiery train accidents. They are also critical of the latest safety rules that allegedly protect the public from accidents.
Rail Workers United, a coalition of rail workers and their unions, says that the best way to make trains safer is to increase worker control and self-management; they propose a host of reforms that profit-obsessed rail companies are not interested in hearing.
For many rail-side communities there is a parallel interest in community control over the railroads: no fossil fuel trains are safe for them as long as trains derail and the climate unravels.
Together, the two movements are calling for a better future for our railroads and our environment, and demanding more public influence to safeguard both.
Who’s in control? A retrospective.
A little over two years ago on 6th July 2013, an oil train derailed and exploded in Lac Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. After the accident the CEO of Rail World, Edward Burkhardt, told the media that he blamed the single employee his company had charged with moving 2 million gallons of crude oil.
Armed with his very best talking points, Burkhardt told the media: “I think he did something wrong. It’s hard to explain why someone didn’t do something.”
According to reports, the lead locomotive’s engine had problems in the past, but had been rushed back into circulation to save the company money on a standard repair. That engine caught fire the night before the disaster, and a local fire chief shut off the engine to stop fuel from flowing into the fire, inadvertently cutting the power to the train’s air brakes in the process.
The company told the lone crew member not to come back to the site, and instead sent two workers who did not have experience with the braking system to confirm that the train was safe. Later that night, while the engineer was asleep in a nearby hotel, the train rolled down-hill from where it was parked, hurtling toward the city.
The impact of the explosion incinerated half the city’s downtown, and contaminated most of the remaining buildings with 1.5 million gallons of crude oil.
‘One man crews are safer – less distraction’
For CEO Burkhardt, the explanation was simple – the engineer should have set more brakes that did not rely on the engine. When asked if the crew was adequate for the cargo the following week, Burkhardt told a press conference that “one-man crews are safer than two-man crews because there’s less exposure for employee injury and less distraction.”
Under financial pressure, the company had made the switch to one-person crews three years before, replacing on-board conductors with remote control systems, and saving about $4.5 million every year. One month after the tragedy in Lac Megantic, the company filed for bankruptcy. Later that month Burkhardt expressed bewilderment when the police raided his corporate offices in Quebec.
In March, a coalition of rail workers held a conference on rail safety in Olympia, Washington, where they taught audience members (including myself) that the average train operator today suffers from chronic exhaustion and sleep deprivation.
Many workers in attendance attributed this to inaccurate train-lineups that do not allow for proper rest. Due to the uncertainty of when they are called to work, a train crew can be assigned to move a train full of hazardous materials without the chance to achieve needed rest from their last assignment. And with full knowledge they will be penalized for refusing a train, workers can go over 24 hours with no sleep by the time a shift ends.
This exhaustion is a chronic background problem for rail workers, and when combined with the near-constant dismissal of safety hazards from their managers, workers are left with waning confidence in their own safety – a development that should raise red flags for rail-side communities.
One man crews on long and heavy trains – a recipe for disaster
According to Ron Kaminkow, General Secretary of Rail Workers United, “There’s no such thing as a safe one-person train.” Looking back over some recent derailments, the facts appear to back him up.
On 14th May an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia, killing 8 passengers and sending over 200 people to the hospital. It was staffed by one person, and accelerated to over 100 miles per hour shortly before hitting a curve whose speed limit was 50.
On October 28th last year, a sleep-deprived engineer in the Bronx fell asleep at his controls, causing his one-crew train to hit a curve at 82 miles per hour when the speed limit was 30. The derailment killed four people and injured more than 70.
On July 24th, 2013 a single crew-member train derailed in Santiago, Spain, killing 79 people and injuring 139. The train was traveling at 100 miles per hour when it headed into a curve where the speed limit was 50.
Public officials commenting on these incidents have often focused on the technology that could have stopped the trains remotely if installed – something US railroads are already required to utilize under federal law, despite constant extensions on their legal deadlines.
According to rail workers, this is just part of the problem. Rapid attempts at cost-cutting, they say, have created both technological and human shortages, and when it comes to safety there is no question which one matters most.
“There is no technology available today that can ever safely replace a second crew member in the cab of the locomotive”, says a statement from the BLET and SMART-TD rail unions after the Philadelphia derailment.
Obama administration sitting on proposed two-man rule
Prior to 1967, Washington state actually required 6 crew members on all trains. That law was repealed in 1967 after the rail corporations ran an initiative campaign that wiped it out. In the 1980s, the standard train crew was still five or six people across the country.
But this was widdled down to two people by the 1990s – with just one conductor and one engineer. This has been the standard ever since. Now, through the use of new technology, the rail corporations have attempted to break down that number to one or even zero.
According to Herb Krohn, the Washington State Legislative Director for Smart UTU, the Puget Sound and Pacific Railroad is already using one-person crews to run trains loaded with hazardous materials – like the one that blew in Lac Megantic – including trains full of explosive gas. This line operates in Washington State between Centralia, Grays Harbor and Shelton.
In the aftermath of Lac Megantic, the Canadian Minister of Transport mandated two-person crews for trains carrying dangerous goods. In January the US Federal Rail Administration proposed a rule on two-person crews, but the Obama administration has so far declined to consider the proposal.
Train lengths doubled in eight years
In addition to cutting crew sizes, the biggest rail companies have doubled train lengths since 2007, routinely moving trains a mile long or even greater. This decreases labor costs, but also weakens tracks and causes exceptional wear on rail infrastructure. Factoring in this extra length and tonnage, a two person crew today represents one-sixth the number of workers that was standard in the 1980s.
Despite running trains that have never been longer or heavier, with quantities of hazardous material that are totally unprecedented on our rail lines, the railroads insist that an individual worker’s behavior, and not the hazards they have built in to the system, are the main reason that accidents occur.
“The BNSF is not genuinely concerned about safety”, says Geoff Mirelowitz, a former BNSF employee. “It is concerned about legal and financial liability. Every oil train that derails, every rail worker who is hurt on the job is a potential liability to the company.
“They are on a massive public relations campaign to ‘prove’ that if anything does go wrong it is not the BNSF’s responsibility. They frequently claim the primary safety problem is ’employee behavior’ in order to distract attention from the unsafe conditions and hazards that the BNSF itself is responsible for correcting.”
Geoff was fired from BNSF three years ago, after working as a switchman for almost 18 years in Seattle. His entire three-person crew was fired shortly after they pressed safety complaints about switch maintenance with BNSF management. The crew has filed a Whistleblower complaint with OSHA, charging the company with a violation of the Federal Rail Safety Act.
Although OSHA has agreed that their firing deserves an investigation, the crew is still waiting for it to begin.
Pipelines on wheels, protests on stilts
By any metric, the volume of oil by rail has skyrocketed in recent years, with 1,000 of these trains now coming through the Columbia Gorge every year. According to Karmen Fore, Senior Transportation Policy Advisor for Governor Kate Brown, there were around 3,000 oil shipments by train in 2006, but 493,126 in 2014.
In 2013 alone the railroads shipped over 11 billion gallons of crude oil, which has led to a commensurate rise in oil spills. Over a million gallons spilled in 2013 – more than the previous four decades combined, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. In 2014 there were 141 spills reported – setting yet another record.
The US Department of Transportation completed an analysis earlier this year predicting an average of 10 oil train derailments every year for the next 20 years.
According to an analysis of industry data by OPB, hazardous material trains spill 0.01% of the time, so if the 1,000 oil trains coming through the Gorge are any representation of the larger problem, we could expect 10 of these to derail and spill each year.
The public database at the FRA’s Office of Safety Analysis shows that 15 trains actually did derail and released hazardous materials in Multnomah County between 2011 and 2014.
Cut oil trains not conductors!
Abby Brockway learned about these statistics first-hand after an incident in her own neighborhood. On July 24th last year a train loaded with 100 oil cars derailed in downtown Seattle.
“The derailment under the Magnolia bridge was just a little too close to home – just a mile away from my daughter’s school,” Abby said in a phone interview. “I’ve spent years worrying about climate change, wondering why our leaders were doing nothing about it. After that day I realized that I couldn’t wait any longer – I needed to take action.”
On September 2nd, Abby and a group of activists with Rising Tide Seattle entered the Delta rail yard, not far from the derailment. There, Abby scaled an 18-foot tripod directly on top of the train tracks, and stayed there all day to talk to the media about the danger of oil trains, and to invite others to stand up for their communities. She waved two bright flags – one in each hand – while sporting a giant sign that read “Cut oil trains not conductors!”
After eight hours on the tripod, Abby and four other people were arrested. They now have a trial set for October 19th. Jen Wallis, a conductor with over 10 years of experience with the BNSF railroad, was fired from BNSF after reporting an injury, but re-instated in 2014 after six years of litigation. She would later write:
“When my co-workers saw that tripod up in Everett with the sign that said ‘Cut Oil Trains, Not Conductors’, they were blown away.” She added: “We understand completely now that we are fighting an industry that cares as much about us as they do the environment, which is not at all … “
Why rail companies are pushing for one-person train crews
By David Z. Morris, June 11, 2015, 8:17 AM EDT
As technology advances, train crews shrink. But is safety on the line?
Most freight rail lines still operate with two-person crews, a minimum is now enshrined in labor contracts held by the United Transportation Union and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. But railways, citing in part the rise of automated safety systems, are pushing to change that.
“Most rail corporations would like to get rid of as many workers as possible,” says Ron Kaminkow, general secretary of Railroad Workers United, a group that opposes smaller crews. “Right now, they believe they can operate trains with a single employee.”
Both sides claim safety is their main priority, but there are clearly other motivations—unions want to preserve jobs, while railways are striving to cut labor costs.
Regulators seem to be siding with labor on the question of staffing. The Office of Management and Budget is currently reviewing a proposed Federal Railroad Administration rule that would require at last two railroad employees on a train at all times.
The move to one-person crews would be the culmination of a long process. Mirroring sectors from manufacturing to stock brokerage, technology has allowed the rail industry to shed jobs even as revenues rise. Since the 1960s, innovations including diesel engines, better radios, and wayside monitoring gear has meant less need for warm bodies. U.S. railway employment declined 3% in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available. Those changes and more, says Kaminkow, led to the standardization of two-man freight train crews in the 1990s.
But the replacement of workers by technology has coincided with a massive improvement in railway safety. According to data from George Bibel, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of North Dakota, derailments have decreased from over 3,000 in 1980 to less than 500 in 2010. A recent Northwestern University study found similar steep declines in rail fatalities.
Nonetheless, rail workers say that reducing crews to a single operator is a step too far. The RWU argues that routine operations like attaching and detaching cars from a train would be unsafe without a team able to see surroundings.
There are more dramatic cases, such as the May 12th derailment of Amtrak 188. Though the incident is still under investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board has looked into the possibility that engineer Brandon Bostian was either distracted by his phone or incapacitated as the train hit a curve at more than twice the posted speed limit. In those scenarios, the fatal crash might have been prevented by a second engineer.
Another tragic incident occurred when a solo engineer improperly parked the train for the night above Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in 2013. It rolled into downtown Lac-Mégantic and exploded, killing 47 and destroying much of the town’s central district. That train was operated by a smaller line not subject to the labor contracts in effect for so-called Class I carriers.
Kaminkow says that freight engineers operate on unpredictable schedules, generating fatigue that can lead to this sort of mistake.
Unless and until the proposed FRA rule passes, there is no national rule on train staffing levels. U.S. states including Washington, Utah, and Iowa are considering their own rules, but these could be vulnerable to challenge under interstate commerce law.
Regardless of the FRA rule, technology will continue to erode rail jobs. With BNSF piloting a program to inspect rail using drones, track crews may shrink. And though Positive Train Control has been touted primarily as a safety measure, Kaminkow says the technology is a major step towards something more radical.
“If PTC comes online,” he says, “[Railways] will then point out that the train is basically capable of running itself.”
From there, driverless trains would be possible, at least in theory.