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Working People: Bryan Mack

What Union Pacific and the media aren’t telling you about the Baker, CA, train derailment

New Bigger Risks Await Poorly Regulated Rail Industry

By Justin Mikulka - DeSmog, March 31, 2023

In July of 2013, a train carrying Bakken oil from North Dakota derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and destroying the downtown. I spent the five years after that accident researching what happened, following the railroad regulatory process that spans the U.S.-Canada border, and publishing a book about that experience. The main lesson of that book was that the regulatory process in America is deeply flawed and controlled by industry — both rail and oil interests. 

As we approach the 10-year anniversary of Lac-Mégantic, the disaster in East Palestine shows just how little was done to protect the public from these dangerous trains. Meanwhile, the public is facing new rail risks that are receiving scant attention — and once again federal regulators are allowing industry to move forward without proper consideration of the health and safety risks. I live three blocks from a busy rail line and what worries me the most when I hear the trains rumble past is not that they’re carrying vinyl chloride or even Bakken oil, but the looming risk of mile-long trains of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and hydrogen. 

In 2019, then-President Trump issued an executive order to fast-track new regulations that would allow shipping liquefied natural gas by rail without any meaningful guardrails on its transport. 

But Earthjustice and other organizations sued the administration over this move, citing the perils. “It would only take 22 tank cars to hold the equivalent energy of the Hiroshima bomb,” according to Earthjustice attorney Jordan Luebkemann. 

Modeling by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) estimates that for a train pulling 100 tank cars of LNG and traveling at 40 miles per hour, a derailment is expected to cause four punctures in the tank cars. 

The Biden administration is reviewing this Trump-era regulation, but the only sensible option is to ban the movement of LNG-by-rail. 

Over the last year, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has upset global energy markets, giving a big boost to plans to increase exports of American LNG overseas and placing pressure to move as much LNG as possible as quickly as possible — including by rail.

LNS Supports Railroad Workers United’s Demand to Nationalize the Railroads

By staff - Labor Network for Sustainability, March 31, 2023

There is a through-line between the denial of sick days to railroad workers and residents of East Palestine fleeing their homes in the aftermath of a derailed freight train poisoning their town. The through-line is the rail industry’s drive for profit costing workers and communities their health and safety. The through-line is workers sounding the alarm, to no avail.

For decades, the railroad industry has been increasing profits by raising prices and cutting labor costs, resulting in degraded safety standards and short-staffing. This, and the pursuit of short-term profit, are at the heart of why 45,000 rail workers have lost their jobs since 2015, why rail industry lobbyists have spent millions to undermine safety regulations, why the industry has delayed the electrification of railroads, and why a “100% preventable” rail disaster in East Palestine has caused residents to flee, animals to die, and at least 1.1 million gallons of water and 15,000 pounds of soil to become contaminated. To those who own the railroads, all of this has been a great success: CEOs at five of the largest railroad conglomerates have made $200 million over the last 3 years. After all, the point of private industry is profit.

Private interests must be prevented from dictating the future of rail– critical infrastructure that serves as a backbone for the economy, communities, and a climate-safe future. To that end, the Labor Network for Sustainability supports Railroad Workers United’s demand to nationalize the railroads.

Alongside necessary public investments, public ownership of rail will allow us to transform our rail system into one that truly serves the common good. Untethered from the market, we can electrify and expand rail, institute fairer working conditions, and engage communities throughout the process so that equity, sustainability, and justice are at the forefront.

The latest Synthesis Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) clearly stated that the choices we make in the next decade will impact us now and for the next thousand years. Now is the time for bold decisions. Without public and democratic ownership of rail, many of those crucial decisions will not be made by us– they will be made by a wealthy few.

To our partners and allies who value democracy, workers rights, and climate justice– join us in demanding that rail becomes a public good!

The first signs of an ecological class struggle in Germany

By Franziska Heinisch and Julia Kaiser - Progressive International, March 31, 2023

On 3 March 2023, on the occasion of the global climate strike, a special political alliance took to the streets in Germany: side-by-side, climate activists and public transport workers went on strike. In at least 30 cities, climate activists visited workers’ pickets and brought them along for joint demonstrations. According to Fridays for Future, a total of 200,000 people participated in the nation-wide protests.

The way employers reacted showed that this alliance of workers and climate activists is a potential threat to the ruling class. Steffen Kampeter, CEO of the Confederation of German Employers (BDA), publicly denounced them on the morning of the joint strike day as “a dangerous crossing of the line”. He said that the German service union ver.di was blurring the lines between strikes for collective bargaining and general political concerns, thereby entering the terrain of political strikes. To the delight of campaigners, this accusation contributed to the fact that the joint strike dominated the news that day.

This unity between the labour and climate movement was long overdue: a wider and more affordable public transport system is one of the central measures to achieve socially just climate protection. However, the mobility transition in Germany has so far been made impossible: many employees in local transport work in shifts under terrible conditions and barely make ends meet — with salaries just above the minimum wage. Many therefore decide to quit their jobs. There is already a shortage of tens of thousands of drivers. And this problem will only get worse in the coming years. At the same time, ticket prices are rising steadily and the passenger transport systems, especially in rural areas, are thinned out.

What If WE Owned The Tracks?

By Jason Clifford - CleanTechnica, March 22, 2023

When it comes to energy efficient transportation in America, no transportation option is better than the railroads. They have been the freight transportation backbone of America for nearly 200 years, which is why all the recent news about train derailments and union strikes deserves our attention. While more profitable then they have ever been for investors, the railroads are moving less freight and employing fewer workers now then they did in 2006. After underinvesting in their labor force, rolling stock, and tracks for decades, are America’s railroads entering a state of decline, and if so, should we start discussing the pitfalls and possibilities of public rail ownership?

A Brief History Of Railroads & Railroad Ownership In The US

For some context, it will be good to have a brief history lesson. Starting with the birth of America in the late 1700s and early 1800s, bulk goods were moved by waterways, as the only other option was horse-drawn carriage. In the early days of the country, cities were built around the navigable waterways to transfer goods and services. However, as the nation grew westward, it was harder and took longer to ship goods and services by waterway. Baltimore, wanting to retain its importance as a major shipping port, looked to Europe’s emerging train technology as an opportunity to more quickly deliver goods and people to inland areas of the country. Hence, starting in 1828, the Baltimore and Ohio railroad was built as the first major railroad in the US. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad company was founded to build the tracks and run the trains, with significant investments from the State of Maryland and other private investors.

Beginning in the 1830s and 1840s, railroads were built across the young nation, bringing people westward, reducing travel times and shipping costs. Investors like Cornelius Vanderbilt, with money from their waterway shipping enterprises, started investing in the railroads and profiting from the new technology frontier.

The United States government, wanting to rapidly expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific, was not satisfied with the gradual growth of the railroads. Conversely, private investors were not interested in investing a large amount of money to build track in sparsely populated areas that may not give them a return for decades. Considering these factors Congress passes and President Abraham Lincoln signs the 1862 Pacific Rail Act which grants the railroad companies land and government bonds to build the tracks. In total, the legislation created four transcontinental railroads and gave away 174 million acres of public lands to rail companies. Union Pacific was founded during this time and took advantage of the legislation to build out the railroads and establish itself as a dominant player in the western United States.

Hence, the railroad companies have always been a private enterprise but with serious public backing from the state and federal governments.

The Lithium Problem: An Interview with Thea Riofrancos

By Alyssa Battistoni and Thea Riofrancos - Dissent, Spring 2023

Can we rapidly reduce carbon emissions while minimizing the damage caused by resource extraction?

After years of outright climate denial and political intransigence, the development of renewable energy is finally underway. When it comes to transportation—the number one source of U.S. carbon emissions—the strategy for decarbonization has focused heavily on replacing gas-powered cars with rechargeable electric vehicles. The Inflation Reduction Act offers billions of dollars of subsidies for both producers and consumers of EVs, including a $7,500 tax credit for buying new EVs made in the United States. The infrastructure bill passed in late 2021 included $5 billion to help states build a network of EV recharging stations. New York and California have announced bans on the sale of vehicles with internal combustion engines beginning in 2035. Half of this year’s Superbowl car ads touted electric vehicles. By 2030, it is estimated that electric vehicles will make up half of U.S. car sales.

For our reliance on privatized transportation to remain the same, everything else will have to change. We’re already seeing concerns about shortages of “critical minerals” necessary for batteries and other renewable technologies. Based on current consumption patterns, for example, U.S. demand for the lithium used in batteries would require three times the existing global supply—which comes primarily from Australia, Latin America, and China—by 2050. In anticipation of booming demand, a flurry of new mining operations has begun around the world—and so have protests by those worried that mines will disturb ecosystems, contaminate water supplies, generate toxic waste, and disrupt local livelihoods.

What does the current trajectory of the “green energy transition” mean for global environmental justice? What other options are there? Is it possible to rapidly reduce carbon emissions while also minimizing extraction and maintaining—or even increasing—people’s ability to move freely and safely?

A new report from the think tank Climate and Community Project presents the data behind different visions of the green future. A scenario in which the United States reduces car dependency by improving public transit options, density, and walkability could see a 66 percent decrease in lithium demand compared to a business-as-usual model. Even just reducing the size of U.S. vehicles and batteries could potentially reduce lithium use by as much as 42 percent in 2050. In other words, the choices Americans make about domestic transportation, housing, and development matter worldwide. In this interview, the report’s lead author, political scientist Thea Riofrancos, explains the implications of its findings for climate and environmental politics in the United States and around the planet.

Corporate Greed Is a Root Cause of Rail Disasters Around the World

By Justin Mikulka - DeSmog, March 21, 2023

On February 25, Greece experienced its deadliest rail disaster ever when a freight train ran headlong into a passenger train coming towards it on the same track, killing 57 people. This tragic accident, near the city of Larissa, occurred just weeks after the East Palestine, Ohio rail disaster, and while the outcomes are different, the root cause is the same: corporate greed and deregulation. 

While two trains colliding on the same tracks might seem unfathomable to Americans, it shouldn’t be. A similar accident occurred in Texas in 2016, a year after the U.S. rail industry refused to meet a Congressionally mandated deadline for installing a safety system called positive train control, which would have prevented the accident.

Threatened with a rail shutdown, Congress buckled and gave the industry an extra three years to install the safety system, with the option for an extension until the end of 2020. On December 29, 2020, the Federal Railroad Administration announced that positive train control was finally installed on all of the required rail lines. 

As DeSmog has reported, the U.S. rail industry has lobbied against the requirement to install positive train control since 1970. In fact, one rail lobbyist received an award for being “part of a successful push for a congressional agreement to extend a deadline for automated trains on most of the nation’s railways.” The National Transportation Safety Board first recommended positive train control in 1970 after two Penn Central commuter trains collided head-on near Darien, Connecticut, the previous year. Four people were killed and 43 were injured.

Off the Rails: Chemicals, Communities, and ‘Bomb Trains’

A Worker-Led Approach: Shaping the Future of Aviation

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