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United Transportation Union (UTU)

The Revolution Will Be On Rail, Part I

By Matt Stannard - Occupy.Com, June 14, 2016 (image by Jon Flanders)

Trains have the ability to move America into a post-carbon economy with fewer cars, cleaner air and stronger communities. But railroad bosses are telling their workers they have to support more oil and coal extraction, and faster, more dangerous train routes in order to keep their jobs.

John Paul Wright is concerned about this contradiction. The husband and father is a locomotive engineer, union and labor organizer, and a singer of protest songs. As the national lead organizer for [Railroad Workers United] and a member of the organization’s steering committee, part of his job is bringing together railroad unions who’ve been told by the bosses that they have incompatible views and interests. “This is the very nature of big business craft unionism,” he tells me. “The workers are caught in the middle.”

Wright says that “the railroad could be the most efficient way to move anything we move today. But we’ve been sold on an economy that doesn’t represent our best interests.”

Part of our job as storytellers and advocates for a new economy is to articulate how the interests of working people converge with those of a healthy and just planet. Trains are a crucial part of that picture. “The railroads built the small towns, passenger service was the transportation policy before cars,” Wright says, “and small farming communities had access to larger markets.”

But now, the trains and often the land on which they travel are owned by big corporations. “So us workers are forced to move whatever America wants. We move coal, oil, products from sweatshops overseas, fertilizer, plastics, etc,” he says. All because corporate capitalism “sees no profit in a transportation policy built on service and access.”

This isn’t just the market following around people’s preferences like a faithful dog. The story of the decline of public transportation and railways is one of criminal manipulation by capitalists, not honest brokering. In the first half of the 20th century, a group of executives colluded to buy and literally dismantle the electric train systems in many of America’s major cities in order to artificially create a market for oil, cars, trucks and eventually an interstate system.

America’s public transit was like a Library of Alexandria for the United States: if it had survived and been regularly upgraded, we’d have quite a system today, one that would likely be transitioning to completely renewable power, as smaller nations are in the process of doing.

The potential ecological and socioeconomic benefits of rail are overwhelming. For transport of goods, trains are four times more fuel efficient than trucks. They also reduce highway gridlock, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce pollution. For personal travel, trains emit on average between 80 and 90 percent less carbon output than airplanes per passenger.

Although some trains still run on diesel and oil, and a growing number of cars are hybrid or totally electric, trains could make the jump forward by going totally renewable, as they have in other countries. And a well-planned and executed mass transit system could make travel virtually free, replacing vehicles that are expensive to buy and maintain.

As usual it comes down to who makes the decisions: citizens and railway workers, or corporate shareholders and bosses. The corporations are in control now, and the results are unsafe trains that are about to become even less safe due to labor-saving proposals to decrease crew members; trains speeding through ecologically sensitive areas carrying lethal crude oil and frequently causing spills and explosions; and a passenger transit system that doesn’t come close to living up to its efficiency potential. Contrary to what the railway bosses are telling workers and the public, these issues are interrelated and must be part of an agenda for economic and ecological justice.

Railroad Workers United calls Chicago rail safety conference

By Maggie Trowe - The Militant, September 14, 2015; image by Jon Flanders

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’s.

Railroad Workers United will sponsor a one-day conference titled “Railroad Safety: Workers, Community and the Environment” Sept. 19 in Chicago. The RWU is organizing the event with labor and environmental groups, including United Steelworkers Local 1527, Frack Free Illinois and the Southeast Environmental Task Force. It is a follow-up to earlier conferences in Richmond, California, and Olympia, Washington.

“The 2013 Lac-Mégantic disaster put a spotlight on how rail bosses put profits ahead of safety and made these conferences necessary and possible,” Mark Burrows, a steering committee member of Railroad Workers United and delegate in SMART TD Local 1433 union, told the Militant in a phone interview Sept. 1.

On July 6, 2013, an unmanned runaway 72-car Montreal, Main and Atlantic train carrying volatile crude oil derailed and exploded in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people, destroying the downtown area and dumping millions of gallons of oil into the soil and lake there. The catastrophe commanded worldwide attention and spurred concern about the dangers posed by the massive increase of North American oil production and its transport by train through the centers of cities and towns across the continent.

Rail workers score big safety win in California

By Mark Gruenberg - People's World, August 26, 2015

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’s.

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.

A neoliberal train wreck?

By Guy Miller - Socialist Worker, May 20, 2015

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’s.

The media coverage of the deadly Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia, which killed eight people and injured more than 200, focused on the engineer, but there is a long history of cutbacks and cost-cutting that set the stage for this catastrophe. Guy Miller, a railroad worker for 38 years with Chicago Northwestern and Union Pacific and a retired member of United Transportation Union Local 577, looks at where the blame for this tragedy really lies.

EVERY INDUSTRIAL accident is different in its details, but depressingly similar in the cover-up.

Before the dust settles and the debris is cleared away, the company spokesperson is busy framing the story and assigning blame. The media are quick to join the feeding frenzy--and the responsibility always stops at the employee farthest down the food chain. On the railroads, that employee is often the engineer.

On Amtrak run 188 on May 12, that engineer was named Brandon Bostian. Brandon's public trial began almost immediately. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter didn't have--or seem to care about--any evidence, but he knew where to point the finger: "Clearly, he was reckless and irresponsible in his actions. I don't know what was going on with him. I don't know what was going on in the cab. But there's really no excuse."

At this point, the engineer's safety record is usually trotted out. In the operating department, "safety violations" litter the records of even the most conscientious employees. Improper footwear, stepping on a rail, failure to ring the bell over one of the hundreds of grade crossings--all of these mean violations placed in a personnel file. Citations are easy to come by. Like a hound dog picks up fleas, conductors and engineers pick up safety violations.

The problem with Brandon Bostian is that his record was spotless. So something else had to be dragged into the equation. That something proved to be Brandon's sexual orientation, which conservative radio host Sandy Rios and later other right-wing media incredibly declared was a "factor" in the crash.

While most people now know that Brandon was a supporter of marriage equality, few know he was a safety fanatic. In addition to the normal routine, he had his own procedures. "At work, I run through a five-item checklist after I check my engine, and before I touch anything," he wrote on Facebook. "Then a 10-item checklist before I move the train an inch."

On the day of the accident, because of over-scheduling and a delayed inbound train, Bostian had only 30 minutes between runs. When it's to their advantage, trainmasters and other company officials put constant pressure on workers to short-circuit safety inspections and "get out of Dodge." May 12 may well have been such a day.

Clearly, brother Bostian was a model employee. Just before hitting the curve at Frankford Junction, he was complying with the rulebook and ringing the engine bell through the 30th Street Station. This isn't the behavior of a reckless and irresponsible engineer. This isn't the action of someone about to accelerate from the posted speed to 106 miles per hour less than a minute later.

Whatever happened to Bostian--after suffering a concussion in the crash, he has said that he remembers little about what took place in the minutes before the derailment--we must look elsewhere to place the blame for this tragic accident.

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IN 2008, Congress instructed the nation's railroads to install Positive Train Control (PTC) by 2015. Positive Train Control is a sophisticated system for monitoring and controlling train speed, separation and collision avoidance.

From the start, the carriers dragged their feet. Rather than spend money on making it happen, they invested in a small army of lobbyists to make sure the mandate would take as long as possible to implement. The list of lobbyists is a Who's Who of Washington insiders, including former Democratic Rep. William Lipinski and Linda Daschle, wife of highly connected former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

Heedless of safety concerns and unmoved by the Metro-North accident of 2013 that killed four people in the Bronx--another accident that PTC could have prevented--these lobbyists have succeeded in buying time. Under legislation passed by the Senate Finance Committee and now pending before Congress, the deadline for implementing Positive Train Control would be extended five years until 2020.

Within hours of the crash on May 12, the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee approved a bill that slashed Amtrak's budget for the next fiscal year by $251 million, to $1.1 billion.

Short of PTC, there are other, older forms of train control dating back to the 1960s. In my 38 years on the railroad, I worked with two of them: Automatic Train Control (ATC) and Automatic Train Stop (ATS). Either of these systems would have prevented the derailment of Amtrak 188.

ATC was already in use on the southbound track, just on the other side of the same deadly curve that train number 188 hit at twice the speed limit. If the system had been positioned in advance of the accident site, the train would have stopped automatically if the engineer didn't respond immediately to a warning bell.

The railroad knew just how dangerous this curve was. The Frankford wreck--which is legendary among East Coast railroaders--occurred on that same curve 72 years before. On Labor Day weekend in 1943, the inbound Congressional Limited derailed at the exact same spot, resulting in the death of 79 people. So why wasn't the ATC system in place?

As recently as the late 1980s, every commuter train in the Chicago Metra system had a second person in the engine cab. Although still known as a "fireman," this second employee was in reality a second engineer. Having just one person in the cab leaves no room for unforeseen events that can have disastrous consequences. What happens if the engineer has a heart attack, a seizure, an aneurysm--or, yes, simply falls asleep?

In March 1987, during the effort to eliminate the fireman's position in the cab, Metra spokesperson Christopher Knapton told the Chicago Tribune, "One-person crews have shown no decline in safety." I doubt if the eight dead passengers in Philadelphia would second Knapton's opinion; at any rate, it's too late to ask them.

Train Cars Carrying Undocumented Hazardous Materials Pose Risks

By Minnesota Public Radio News - Prarie Business, September 25, 2014

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’s.

At least 18 times in the past three years BNSF Railway freight trains rolled west out of Minneapolis pulling cars filled with hazardous chemicals that were not on the trains’ official cargo list, according to train crew complaints.

That’s contrary to federal regulation because in case of an accident, local firefighters can be left in the dark, unable to take quick action to protect vulnerable residents.

In one case, a train traveled more than 20 miles through the western suburbs with six carloads of anhydrous ammonia, a toxic corrosive gas used as a farm fertilizer, before the train crew knew the chemical was on the train, a complaint said. In another, a complaint said a train traveled about 90 miles west to Willmar before its cargo list — called a manifest — was corrected to show an extra car of ammonia.

The complaints were filed with the Federal Railroad Administration, the federal agency that regulates railroads, and they provide a snapshot of one rail line across Minnesota, a BNSF Railway line from Minneapolis to Willmar. BNSF is the largest rail operator in Minnesota. Provided to MPR News by railroad union members, they are evidence of a problem the FRA said poses “unreasonable risks to health, safety and property.”

Hauling hazardous material without proper documentation is a problem federal officials have been aware of for years. When federal inspectors checked manifests of all rail haulers in Minnesota over a three-year period, one in five contained inaccurate information about cars hauling hazardous materials, according to FRA records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The Fine Print I:

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The Fine Print II:

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