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Simple Solutions Can Safeguard Against Catastrophic Train Events

By Staff - Sierra Club Illinois Chapter, August 10, 2021

“Just because an industry can do something doesn't mean an industry should be doing it!” says Fritz Edler, a veteran railroader and railroad safety activist based in Washington, D.C.

Edler should know: He has broad knowledge about infrastructure, energy, environmental impact, and economics for heavy (freight) and light (passenger) rail in national and international contexts. He also headed the international defense effort for rail workers who were scapegoated after the horrific 2013 Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, volatile oil train wreck.

A special guest at La Coalition's campaign planning meeting in August, Edler shared insights on what the public can do to safeguard against catastrophic train events:

  1. Oppose precision scheduled railroading (PSR). PSR jeopardizes engineer and public safety by encouraging risky industry decision-making and focusing exclusively on lowering the operating ratio to satisfy Wall Street and hedge fund investors. PSR is now the subject of Congressional inquiries. 
  2. Demand sane scheduling and uninterrupted rest time. This will mitigate out-of-control crew fatigue. 
  3. Oppose longer trains. Technological advances allow the operation of longer and heavier trains than ever before, yet safety standards do not address these changes. Longer, heavier trains shift costs to trackside communities in multiple ways. They greatly increase wear and tear on rail infrastructure without requiring increased inspection and maintenance. Longer trains (100+ cars, over 1 mile long) also are significantly more likely to block railway crossings—which inconveniences the public and risks delaying first responders up to 15 minutes.
  4. Require emergency response plans (including fire and hazmat) for all changes in freight traffic, and publicly review the adequacy of the plans.
  5. Demand a minimum of a two-member crew on every train. Some operations require more workers to adequately protect both crew and trackside communities. The optimal number is three to five engineers on a train.
  6. Regulate railroads as the public utilities they have historically been. Limit hedge funds’ power and Wall Street’s involvement in the industry because they promote profits over public safety.
  7. Demand appropriate maintenance and oversight of railroad corridors.
  8. Demand restoration of meaningful whistle-blower protections. These should include significant penalties for evasion and misconduct. Whistle-blower protection is essential for guaranteeing railway safeguards.
  9. Support railroad upgrade efforts that include critical safety and operation improvements for both freight and passenger service. Upgraded railroad crossings are a prerequisite for most expanded and improved rail passenger services and higher-speed freight services—for safety and public convenience. 
  10. Support railroads as a vital part in America's Green Transportation future. Press legislators to support the Green New Deal and high-speed rail legislation, which guarantee the inclusion of rail projects that advance freight and passenger services. 

Last, Edler recommended that the public be skeptical when considering support for new advances in railroading, such as remotely operated trains. It’s important to avoid new problems in an already compromised industry. 

Edler also touched on the regulations that now allow rail transport of liquified natural gas (LNG), and the role of rail in America's Green Transportation future.

La Coalition will hold its next rail safety campaign planning meeting on September 13 at 7 p.m. Come learn what you can do about this very important issue. 

For more information, contact Gerri Songer or visit the website.

 © Sierra Club 2021.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author.

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