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Fritz Edler

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. 

How a Railway Workers Union Won New Technology That Improves Jobs and Reduces Greenhouse Gases

By Karl (Fritz) Edler, BLET Div. 482, retired, Special Rep, Railroad Workers United, Washington, DC - Labor Network for Sustainability, December 16, 2016

This is the story of one group of workers who used their union to improve their own conditions – and fight climate change – by proposing and winning their own plan for investment in improved technology. It provides an inspiring example of how workers and their unions can take their own action to reduce their employer’s greenhouse gas emissions while improving their own jobs.

Union railroad workers at Amtrak’s Washington, DC terminal use “small platform” locomotives to make up and service passenger and commuter trains. These diesel-electric locomotives use diesel engines to generate the electricity that is used to provide the motive power.  Their small size is a key advantage in the close quarters of terminal yard operations.  The units that are currently in use are almost a half-century old, and are far behind modern standards and goals for diesel emissions.

Several years ago the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, through its DC State Legislative Board, foresaw a looming dilemma. Without action, these aging diesel-powered locomotives would be kept in service with as little maintenance as possible until they were beyond recovery. At that point they would be replaced — with the lowest price most likely being the prime consideration.

This meant that the workforce and the public would endure ever-worsening diesel particulate emissions as long as the highly-polluting engines were kept in service. When they would finally replaced, the replacement locomotives would not have the kinds of work qualities needed for best practices in train operations.  Replacement units would most likely be harder and more unwieldy to work.

The union’s State Legislative Board devised a plan to modernize the locomotives now with more energy-efficient engines using an advanced technology known as “gen-sets.” That would reduce pollution and provide higher work life quality while reducing fuel costs. It would also preserve the “small platform” that made terminal train operations safer and easier.

The Union approached the Washington, DC area Council of Governments (MWCoG) to put together a proposal to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA had an existing grant program to replace diesel powered equipment with less polluting equipment.

Protecting Baltimore from Oil Trains

By Jennifer Kunze - Clean Water Action, February 12, 2016

Oil production in North America has skyrocketed in the past five years, with industries using increasingly dangerous and desperate technologies to extract fossil fuels from the ground. Particularly in the Bakken Shale region of North Dakota, the cheapest way for companies to move oil to profitable markets is to load it onto trains and send it to the coast, where refineries and export terminals can transform it into fuel and transport it to wherever they can find the best price. With increasing oil production comes increasing oil train transport – and a mind-boggling increase in oil train accidents. When train cars carrying crude oil derail or hit something, they often puncture; when they do, a slight spark can set off a fiery explosion that turns the train car into a bomb.

Trains carrying volatile crude oil from North Dakota travel through Baltimore constantly – 100 million gallons traveled through the city last year. The trains enter the city in the Morrell Park neighborhood of Southwest Baltimore and pass near the stadiums, follow a tunnel underneath Howard Street, continue underground along 26th Street through Remington and Charles Village (where a retaining wall collapsed onto the tracks two years ago), through Clifton Park, and exit through East Baltimore on their way to Philadelphia. Other trains travel from Morrell Park to South Baltimore, where the oil is transferred to ships and sent on the Patapsco River and through the Chesapeake Bay. Every neighborhood and watershed the trains cross is in danger – if you live within a mile of the tracks, you could be impacted by an explosion.

I first learned about oil trains in July 2013, after the tragedy in the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. In the middle of the night, a train carrying volatile crude oil from North Dakota rolled down the tracks alone, reached a speed of 60 miles per hour, derailed in the middle of downtown, and exploded. Forty-seven people were killed, half of downtown was destroyed, and the town is forever scarred by the oil contamination. Since this terrible accident, oil by rail transport has only increased – but communities are getting educated, getting organized, and fighting back.

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