Category Archives: Railroad workers

Second train worker sues BNSF over Casselton oil train explosion

Repost from INFORUM, Fargo ND

Second train worker sues BNSF over Casselton oil train explosion

By Emily Welker on Nov 19, 2015 at 5:30 a.m.

Smoke rises from scene of a derailed train near Casselton, North Dakota December 30, 2013. Michael Vosburg / The Forum

FARGO – A train conductor in the massive oil tanker train derailment and explosion in Casselton about two years ago is suing BNSF Railway, claiming its negligent safety practices left him injured in the wreck.

It’s the second lawsuit filed in Cass County District Court by a railroad worker in connection with the derailment and explosion, which prompted evacuations in Casselton as thick smoke billowed from oil tanker fires that burned for more than a day. An eastbound 106-car BNSF train hauling oil struck a derailed westbound train hauling soybeans on Dec. 30, 2013, about a half-mile outside of Casselton.

The latest lawsuit, filed Tuesday by Burleigh County train conductor Peter Riepl, says that Riepl was working as conductor on the train, which was loaded with crude oil from the Oil Patch in western North Dakota. The oil train’s lead locomotive hit a railcar from the derailed soybean train, forcing the oil train to derail, the lawsuit says. It says as the oil tankers on Riepl’s train began to catch fire and explode, he leapt from the train to escape and was injured.

The lawsuit claims BNSF was negligent in its safety practices, including in its failure to follow federal and state laws and regulations, and in failing to adopt safe methods to transport hazardous materials.

It also claims that Riepl injured his back two years before that while working on a BNSF train near Stanton, N.D., when he hit his foot on an unsafe section of flooring and fell, also due to the railroad’s negligence.

The suit doesn’t ask for a specific dollar amount, but says Riepl suffered severe and permanent damages and wants the railroad to pay for those losses and damages, including his medical care.

Attorneys on both sides couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday, and no response to Riepl’s lawsuit had yet been filed in court.

BNSF spokesperson Amy McBeth said in an email, “BNSF values Mr. Peter Riepl as an employee, and we are reluctant to say anything about him or his lawsuit outside of the context of his case.”

In their legal response to a similar lawsuit filed in earlier this year in connection with the Casselton derailment, BNSF officials denied any negligence.

That suit, filed by Fargo train engineer Bryan Thompson, also claimed BNSF failed to warn its train workers about the dangers of oil tanker trains and didn’t take appropriate safety precautions.

Thompson claims he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the crash, and he was forced to leave his career as a train engineer.

BNSF officials said in their response that Thompson’s suit might be barred by the terms of the federal Railroad Safety Act. The lawsuit is still pending. A trial is set for August 2017.

The Casselton derailment received nationwide coverage, coming just a few months after a train carrying North Dakota crude rolled down a hill and exploded, killing 47 people in Quebec. The crashes contributed to an ongoing national discussion about the risk of hauling crude oil overland from North Dakota’s Oil Patch.

The National Transportation Safety Board hasn’t released the final results of its investigation of the crash.

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Rail workers score big safety win in California

Repost from People’s World
[Editor:  See earlier coverage:  News Release from California Senator Lois Wolk.  – RS]

Rail workers score big safety win in California

By: Mark Gruenberg, August 26 2015
lacmegantic

Photo: Police helicopter view of Lac-Mégantic, the day of the derailment. Forty-two people were confirmed dead, with five more missing and presumed dead. Licensed under CC BY-SA 1.0 via Commons

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.”

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N.D. hires BNSF manager as inspector for state rail safety program

Repost from the Billings Gazette

N.D. hires BNSF manager as inspector for state rail safety program

By Mike Nowatzki, Forum News Service, August 10, 2015
Train derailment

Oil tank cars not damaged in a train derailment near Culbertson are removed from the area on July 17, 2015. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

BISMARCK, N.D. – A manager for the railroad involved in two fiery oil train derailments in North Dakota during the past two years has been hired as the first track inspector for a new state-run rail safety program.

Karl Carson will go to work for the state Public Service Commission on Aug. 17, doing inspections to identify problems with track and worker safety.

A Minot native, Carson is a division engineer with BNSF Railway. He’s worked for the railroad since 1992, holding several positions including assistant director of maintenance production, in which he supervised maintenance and replacement of track and track components, according to the PSC. He’s worked in management for BNSF since 2004.

Commission chairwoman Julie Fedorchak said the PSC wanted an inspector with experience, and with only two major railroads operating in the state – BNSF and Canadian Pacific – hiring someone with connections to one of them was “just an unavoidable situation.”

She said she asked Carson during his interview “if he would have a hard time regulating his old friends, and he said, ‘Absolutely not.’”

“His experience helps him to understand where the strengths and the weaknesses are and will really help him engage directly with the railroad,” she said. “They know his experience and they know he knows what he’s talking about.”

North Dakota is the 31st state to partner with the Federal Railroad Administration on a state rail safety program. The FRA has primary responsibility for rail safety in every state.

The PSC began looking seriously at the need for a state program after the December 2013 derailment of a BNSF oil tanker train near Casselton, which caused a massive fireball and voluntary evacuation of the city. Six cars from a BNSF oil train derailed May 6 near Heimdal in east-central North Dakota. No one was hurt in either incident.

Carson’s new position is one of two approved by state lawmakers in April when they voted to spend $523,345 on the state rail safety program in 2015-17, with the intent of continuing the pilot program in 2017-19.

“We’re quite pleased with the caliber of the first inspector,” Fedorchak said. “He’s got more rail experience than I had hoped for, and I think in talking with other states, that was the key ingredient they emphasized.”

State Sen. Tyler Axness, D-Fargo, who first publicly suggested a state-run rail safety program in July 2014 during his unsuccessful campaign for the PSC, said he doesn’t necessarily disagree with Fedorchak that the pool of qualified applicants for the inspector job is probably limited in North Dakota, and he declined to make any judgments about the hire without seeing the pool of applicants.

But Axness and Wayde Schafer, conservation organizer for the Dacotah Chapter of the Sierra Club, both said it seems like the state has a pattern of hiring regulators with close ties to the industries they will oversee. Schafer said on such a contentious issue as rail safety, “it seems like they would want to hire somebody who was a little bit more neutral.”

“You’d think something this controversial, even the appearance of impropriety should be avoided whenever possible,” he said.

Don Morrison, executive director of the Dakota Resource Council, drew a comparison to the hiring of Lynn Helms, a former employee of Texaco and what is now Hess Corp. who now regulates and promotes the state’s oil and gas industry as director of the state Department of Mineral Resources.

“It certainly looks like business as usual, which is give the industry what they want,” he said. “Time will tell.”

Fedorchak said the PSC had 18 applicants for the job and interviewed the top five, with second interviews for the two finalists. She noted Carson was the “strong favorite” among the FRA inspectors on the interview panel.

Carson earned a certificate of completion in auto mechanics from Bismarck State College in 1990 and also served in the North Dakota Army National Guard from 1990 to 1994. He couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

His annual salary with the PSC will be $90,000.

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