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Crying for Lec Megantic… and Learning the Lessons

By John Reimann - Oakland Socialist, February 26, 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.

On February 24, Marilaine Savard, from Lac Megantic Canada gave a presentation in Pittsburg, CA, on the train tanker car explosion that rocked that little town last July, killing 47 people (it would have been far more if it had been later in the morning) and destroying most of downtown. The explosion was of Bakken crude oil, the most explosive oil being pumped nowadays. The Obama administration has ordered “emergency safety rules” for transporting Bakken crude. Those rules are merely that the oil has to be pre-tested for explosiveness. That means absolutely nothing, and even if they did impose more rules, they will not be enforced, if simply by underfunding so there aren’t enough inspectors (a very common trick). From the well head to the refinery and all along the way, fracking is deadly. And that doesn’t even include how it adds to global climate disaster – global warming.

Here is a video of  Marlaine’s presentation:

Why Nothing Is Being Done to Improve Oil by Rail Safety

By Justin Mikulka - DeSmog Blog, February 14, 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.

Since the oil train explosion in Lac-Megantic in July of 2013, we have learned that there are some obvious safety issues that need to be addressed regarding transportation of crude oil by rail. The first is that the majority of the rail cars transporting this oil are DOT-111’s which have been deemed unsafe due to their tendency to rupture in accidents. The second is that Bakken crude oil can be explosive and isn’t being properly classified for transport.  

Since Lac-Megantic we have heard many calls for increased rail safety. In August of 2013, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) wrote a letter to the Federal Railway Adminstration (FRA) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Adminstration (PHMSA) requesting that the agency begin a phase out of the DOT-111 rail cars. Senator Schumer also referenced a March 2012 letter written by National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Deborah Hersman requesting safety upgrades to existing DOT-111 rail cars.

On January 15th, 2014, Representative Corrinne Brown (D-FL) wrote a letter to Jeff Denham (R-CA), who is Chairman of the Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Wastes Congressional Subcommittee, requesting a hearing be held regarding rail safety.  In her letter she mentions that several members of the Subcommittee have already written letters requesting a hearing on rail safety as far back as August 2013.  Brown wrote:

“Again, we urge the subcommittee to hold a hearing immediately on rail safety.  We believe the hearing should, at a minimum, include representatives from the NTSB, FRA, PHMSA, the rail industry, and rail labor.  Thank you in advance for consideration of this request.”

Additionally, there are concerned elected officials across the country who have requested action on rail safety. Even Rahm Emanuel, former White House Chief of Staff and current Mayor of Chicago has joined the chorus of people requesting improved rail safety.

Last week, the PHMSA released the first results regarding the testing of Bakken Crude. This testing began in November 2013 and is one of the few changes that have been made since the explosion in Lac-Megantic. The results were not good as over 50% of the samples taken were found to be improperly classified. The offenders paid fines ranging from $12,000 to $51,530.

More Crude Spilled in 2013 Than Previous Four Decades Combined

By Jacob Chamberlain - Common Dreams, January 21, 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.

More crude oil spilled from train accidents in 2013 alone than in the previous four decades combined—an alarming number reported by McClatchy News on Monday that points towards a drastic shift in the highly toxic, yet growing, crude oil business to rail transport.

According to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, in the four decades that such records have been taken between 1975 to 2012, U.S. rail spilled a combined 800,000 gallons of crude oil. This pales in comparison to the damage done in the 12 months of 2013, in which 1.15 million gallons of crude oil was spilled.

In total, U.S. railroads shipped 400,000 carloads of crude oil in 2013, or over 11.5 billion gallons.

"The spike underscores new concerns about the safety of such shipments as rail has become the preferred mode for oil producers amid a North American energy boom," McClatchy reports.

A Train Bound for Tragedy

By Kari Lydersen - In These Times, October 18, 2013 (used by permission)

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.

On July 6, a derailed oil train crashed into the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic, killing 47 people. The tragedy highlighted a distressing practice in the freight train industry: Namely, that thanks to technological developments over the last few decades, a single engineer might now be expected to operate a 100-car train. Because of the lack of oversight, say many railroad workers, that lone man’s mistake could end in disaster.

“The Canada accident really put the spotlight on what can happen if you have one person responsible for such a big piece of machinery,” says J.P. Wright, a locomotive engineer with CSX Transportation in Kentucky and organizer with Railroad Workers United, a national group of progressive labor activists including members from different rail unions, in an interview with In These Times.

RWU, along with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), has highlighted the Montreal disaster as an example of potential tragedies workers think will increase if the industry continues its push for one-man trains. 

However, Ed Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railways, the company running the Quebec train, tells In These Times that one-man crews had nothing to do with the July accident. He argues that the derailment, which occurred when the train’s sole operator left it parked unmanned to spend the night at an inn, could have happened with a two-man crew as well.

“This was a situation where the hand brakes were not properly applied. An employee failed in his duties there. It could be an employee of a two-man crew just as well as an employee of a one-man crew,” Burkhardt says.

But rail workers say that inevitable human errors or unforeseeable accidents will become more frequent and more deadly with only one person running a train.

Railroading Quebec

By Jonathan Flanders - Reproduced from Counterpunch, August 12, 2013

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 bad news for the beleaguered trackside inhabitants of Lac Megantic, Quebec, continues to roll relentlessly downhill, just as the The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway(MM&A)  train did before it exploded in their town, incinerating more that forty of their citizens. After MM&A CEO Edward Burkhardt assured them that his railroad would pay for all the expenses of a cleanup, in the more or less immediate period after the crash(he took a few days to show up), his railroad has sought bankruptcy protection both in Canada and the US, and it has been revealed that it had only 25 million dollars in liability insurance. This is a fraction of what the ultimate cost will be to remediate the environmental disaster created by the wreck. Never mind making whole the families of the dead in Lac Megantic.

According the CBC “ “Burkhardt said that the railway wishes to continue to work with municipal and provincial authorities “on environmental remediation and cleanup as long as is necessary, and will do everything within its capacity to achieve completion of such goal.””

Evidently this railroad’s capacity only extends as far as hiring lawyers, since it has welshed on its bills for the cleanup so far, leaving Lac Megantic and Quebec to step in to pay cleanup workers. And as we know, once the corporate lawyers start circling  a disaster, the settlement will take years, not months.

Lac-Mégantic and the Presumed Innocence of Capitalism

The Lac-Mégantic disaster shows once again that capitalists  are self-interested, uncaring, anti-social actors, not worthy of presumptions in their favor.

By Harry Glasbeek - Reposted from Climate and Capitalism, July 24, 2013

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.

“If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who creates the darkness.”

-Victor Hugo, Les Misérables-

It is always the same.

First the shock and horror, then the anger. A terrible environmental disaster inflicted by Beyond Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico; a horrendous explosion at Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant; a mine disaster, burying people at Westray in Nova Scotia; a factory building collapsing in Bangladesh; a train’s cargo exploding and incinerating people and the city of Lac-Mégantic.

Each time there are the same questions:

  • Why was anyone allowed to engage in this activity, given its known risks?
  • Why, more specifically, were people with poor reputations in respect of safety and/or people with little experience allowed to run these risky activities?
  • Why did governments not have better laws and regulations?
  • Why did governments not have better monitoring and policing of such laws and regulations they had enacted?
  • How dared the leaders of these risk-creating entities try to blame their hapless underlings?
  • How could they be so cavalier, so callous, so arrogant? Who was to pay for the compensation?
  • Should anyone go to jail?

The reasons for the shock and anger are obvious: the burned bodies, destroyed lives and livelihoods, ravaged environments, disrupted communities, misery all round. And each time, sombre-looking politicians and policy-makers walk around the sites, solemnly promise to learn from the event, assuring the stunned public that they will not let it happen again, that heads will roll if legal justice demands it.

Each time people are shocked and horrified because they believe that they live under a regime of a mature and civilized political economy.

They have been told that for-profit entrepreneurs care about their health and safety; they are taught that their elected governments will force entrepreneurs to put health and safety and environments ahead of profit-maximization.

“Pipeline on Rails” Plans for the Railroads Explode in Quebec

By Jonathan Flanders - Reproduced from Counterpunch, July 12, 2013

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 boom in oil fracking and tar sands has lured the great and small to the rails in search of profits and jobs.

The great include Bill Gates, who took time from the virtual world of software to acquire controlling interest in the Canadian National railroad(CN), part of the real world of steel rails, mile long trains and the rumble of linked diesel locomotives pulling tar sands oil out of Alberta.

The not so great, like Edmund Burkhardt, CEO of Rail World, which controls the short line “Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway” saw the boom in rail transported petroleum as a way to make his mini-empire of short lines profitable.

And of course the “small people”, railroad employees of the “Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway” like Tom Harding, the engineer of the train that blew up, found steady workrunning the endless strings of crude oil tankers across Canada and the US to refineries. Harding, by the way, is now being blamed by CEO Burkhard for the disaster.

Railroad industry watchers have predicted even more exponential growth for the “pipeline on rails” booming on in the shadow of the stalled Keystone pipeline plans still awaiting Obama’s signature.

Now all these plans are up in the air, after the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train’s engine caught fire, was shut down, which might then have been the cause for the brakes to leak off, sending fully loaded oil tank cars careening down the grade into Lac Megantic, Quebec where they exploded, incinerating dozens of people.

By Rail or Pipeline: Can Tar Sands be Safely Transported at All?

By Jonathan Flanders - Reproduced from Counterpunch, July 8, 2013

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.

My last years working as a railroad machinist were spent working on locomotive air brakes. In most situations, the system is fail safe. I always chuckle when I see a movie where a train separates, as it did in the latest James Bond thriller, and  both ends of the train keep going. This is close to impossible in real life, the air brake system automatically will go into emergency braking if there is a break in two. When a locomotive engineer applies the brakes to a train, he or she makes a “reduction”

of the equalizing or control air, which then triggers a brake application. This reduction of equalizing air, in the case of a break is the key to emergency brake applications. There is much more to the system, of course as it was refined over time, but its all based on this concept.

What we know so far in Quebec, is that the oil train was parked on a grade. The brakes were set by the crew, at some point the brakes came off, and the train rolled into the little town of Lac-Megantic, derailed and exploded, leaving many dead and the town devastated.

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