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Lac-Mégantic

Bosses’ profit drive caused Lac-Mégantic rail disaster

By John Steele - The Militant, February 6, 2017

“We have a very strong defense, which will show that Harding was not criminally responsible for what happened and get at the truth of who is really responsible for the disaster at Lac-Mégantic,” Thomas Walsh, attorney for locomotive engineer Thomas Harding, told the Militant Jan. 5. Because of continual delays, which have stretched over three years, Walsh and Harding had considered demanding the charges be tossed out. “But the people of Lac-Mégantic and Harding want and deserve a trial,” he said.

Harding and train controller Richard Labrie — both members of United Steelworkers Local 1976 — and Jean Demaitre, operations manager for the now defunct Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, face frame-up charges of 47 counts of criminal negligence in relation to the July 2013 Lac-Mégantic oil train disaster that killed 47 people and burned out the downtown core. If convicted, the three could face life in prison.

Walsh said that at the upcoming Jan. 26-27 court hearing in Sherbrooke, Quebec, he will demand a court order to give the defense access to the original reports and documents that the federal Transportation Safety Board used to prepare its report, as well as a separate English-language trial for Harding.

Since the disaster, the official report of the board and a hard-hitting series of articles in the Globe and Mail, Canada’s English-language daily, have shown that the cost-cutting profit drive of the rail bosses, along with complicity from Ottawa’s Transport Canada agency, was the cause of the deadly disaster.

“Company rules prevented Harding from using a 10-second procedure to activate the automatic air brakes that would have prevented the disaster, in order to save 15 minutes of start-up time the next day,” Brian Stevens, National Railway director of Canada’s largest private sector union Unifor, told a Dec. 8 University of Ottawa conference on the Lac-Mégantic disaster.

In addition, company bosses with permission from Transport Canada forced workers to run the railroad’s trains with only a single person, the engineer.

“Train accidents happen regularly all over the world,” Walsh told La Tribune Sherbrooke. “Most of the time it’s the engineer who is fingered in these rail catastrophes.”

The rail bosses’ utter disregard for safety in their drive for profits was highlighted again when Transport Canada officials laid charges Nov. 15 against the Canadian Pacific Railway and two former CP managers under the Railway Safety Act. They are charged with illegally ordering a freight train crew — over strenuous objections from the conductor and engineer — to park a 57-car train carrying dangerous goods on a slope above the town of Revelstoke, British Columbia, and leave it unattended without the handbrakes applied.

This was a direct breach of emergency directives by the government established after the Lac-Mégantic disaster, Transport Canada says.

The incident took place on Feb. 15, 2015, hours before the Teamsters union strike deadline at the railroad.

Some 3,000 Canadian Pacific rail workers went out on a Canada-wide strike against the rail bosses’ moves that endanger workers and those who live along the tracks. Union pickets wore vests saying “fatigue kills,” pointing to Canadian Pacific’s efforts to increase work hours between rest periods. The union ended the strike after one day when the government threatened to impose strike-breaking legislation.

CP representatives and the two former managers are set to appear in court in Revelstoke Feb. 1.

Solidarity messages for Harding and Labrie can be sent to USW Local 1976 / Section locale 1976, 2360 De Lasalle, Suite 202, Montreal, QC H1V 2L1. Copies should be sent to Thomas Walsh, 165 Rue Wellington N., Suite 310, Sherbrooke, QC Canada J1H 5B9 or thomaspwalsh@hotmail.com.

What Have We Learned From the Lac-Megantic Oil Train Disaster?

By Justin Mikulka - DeSmog Blog, December 21, 2016

Brian Stevens first learned about the Lac-Megantic disaster — in which an unattended oil train caught fire and exploded, killing 47 people in the Quebec town — when he saw the news reports on TV.

Stevens is currently National Rail Director for Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, but he previously spent 16 years as an air-brake mechanic working on trains. At a recent conference in Ottawa examining lessons from the 2013 Lac-Megantic rail disaster, he recounted his reaction to seeing those initial scenes of destruction.  

That ain’t Canada, that can’t happen in North America because our brake systems won’t allow that,” he said when he eventually learned the images he was seeing were from Canada. “My heart sank … It was crushing.”  

Stevens went on to explain his opinion of the root cause of the problem, summing up the challenges in Canada with one simple statement: “The railways write the rules.” 

He also placed blame on the deregulation of the Canadian rail industry that began more than three decades ago.

Lac Megantic started in 1984. It was destined to happen,” said Stevens, referring to the start of that deregulation.

One example of the effects of deregulation can be seen in the cuts to the number of people conducting inspections, from over 7,000 railway and rail car inspectors in 1984, down to “less than 2,000” now, according to Stevens. 

He didn't mince words about what he's seen change in the three years since Canada's worst rail accident.

“The railway barons continue to exist and continue to drive the industry and the government,” said Stevens.

September 13th: Thousands petition to Drop the Charges Against Harding and Labrie

By Fritz Edler - Harding and LaBrie Defense, September 8, 2016

Time: Tuesday, September 13, 2016 at 9:00 AM

Place: Palais de Justice, 375 Rue King Ouest (corner of King and Belvédère), Sherbrooke, QC

(Sherbrooke, QC)-Representatives of the Harding and Labrie Defense Committee, Railroad Workers United (RWU) and community allies from the Lac Mégantic area will be at the procedural hearings at the Palais de Justice in Sherbrooke, QC on September 13th, 2016 carrying petitions signed by over 2000 people across North America calling for ending the prosecution of Canadian railworkers Tom Harding and Richard Labrie. Harding and Labrie have been targeted and charged under the Criminal Code as well as the Railroad Safety Act and other laws. The charges could result in prison terms up to life.

“Investigations have already determined that the actions of these two were not the predominate cause the Lac-Mégantic tragedy,” said Committee representative Fritz Edler, a 35-year veteran train engineer. “The runaway train that killed 47 and destroyed half the town was the result of railroad managerial irresponsibility compounded by a failure of government oversight and safety regulation. There was a lax safety culture that has to change.”

The irresponsible practice of sending out unit trains of the most volatile kind with only a single crew member illustrates the disregard for public safety by the Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railroad (MMA) whose most important policymakers have had no legal penalty.

“The number of runaway trains reported across Canada has increased every year since Lac­ Mégantic,” Edler added. “It’s no wonder the people of Lac Mégantic have no confidence in the current actions of the railroad companies or the government agencies to keep them safe, and are calling for the tracks to detour around the town rather than run through it.”

Supporters will gather at 9 am on September 13th in the Palais de Justice Square in Sherbrooke to present the petitions. After the procedural hearing, Harding’s legal defense team will update supporters on the latest developments in the case.

NO! Single Employee Train Crews

By Karl (Fritz) Edler - Railroad Music, July 15, 2016

Oral comments on Train Crew Staffing
Docket Number FRA-2014-0033
RIN 2130-AC48

Good Morning,

My name is Fritz Edler. I recently retired after more than 37 years working for railroads, the last 25 years on the engine. I’m here for the literally millions of passengers who entrusted their safety to me and the other members of my train crews. I’m also here as a Special Representative for Railroad Workers United, an international cross-craft solidarity and advocacy organization. Our membership extends over most major and many lessor railroad systems in North America, passenger and freight. Nobody cares more about train safety than the men and women who work on the railroad.

I feel obliged to mention a third group as well. I just returned from the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. I was one of the speakers at the 3rd anniversary commemoration of the rail tragedy. Three years ago this month, 47 people died when a runaway oil train crashed and burned. I can’t presume to speak for them, or for the 27 Lac-Mégantic orphans.

But the truth is, this hearing is happening because of that train tragedy. The Lac-Mégantic wreck was the biggest international exposé of the dangers of single crew operations, although there was a long history leading to that incident. Lac-Mégantic is why there is FRA consideration of a Train Crew Staffing rule. The evidence is now clear from multiple investigations that single crew operation at Mégantic was a proximal cause of that wreck.

Safety rules are sadly often forged in fire. Fire safety rules in tall buildings came after 146 garment workers perished in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City. Now new Train Crew Rules will come from 47 graves in Lac-Mégantic in 2013.

I have appended the full statement submitted by Railroad Workers United to my remarks here. Let me summarize. One-person train operations are NOT safe.

The FRA should not be in the business of making rules for the unsafe operation of trains. The FRA should not be telling carriers that there might be some circumstances that would allow more risky operation of trains. The FRA should not be producing a roadmap or a manual on how to get “special” approval to run unsafe trains. That is a specific lesson of Lac-Mégantic.

No carrier promises or new operating rules and procedures change the basic fact that one-person trains are LESS SAFE. The FRA should not be working with the carriers to make them just a little bit less unsafe. The record is clear. The rail industry is incapable of self-regulating to eliminate the real risk of death from single crew operation. There are no credible authorities that support single crewmember operations as being as safe as multiple crewmember operations over time. Every time a one-person train goes out it is a high-risk gamble.

Former FRA Director Szabo was right when he said, “… safety dictates you never allow a single point of failure.” Not rarely allow, NEVER.

The FRA already has all the evidence demonstrating beyond any reasonable doubt that one-person trains are more unsafe. All railroaders know it. The airlines use co-pilots. Nobody would fly on a 777 that had a one-person crew. Freight trains are twenty times longer than the biggest 777. They are often longer than the airport runway and there is no autopilot for trains.

Even the carriers will say they don’t plan to run many one-person crew trains, but they want the flexibility, just in case. Just in case of what? A tight deadline? A drop in stock prices? Upcoming negotiations with the unions? Failure to fill vacant jobs?

There are already too many commonplace problems in regular rail operations that require more than one crewmember. At Lac-Mégantic single crew operations were accompanied by a simultaneous reduction of qualified backup crewmembers available for safety assurance. Carrier cost cutting and lax regulatory enforcement are a recipe for disaster

I wish I could have told the Lac-Mégantic survivors that the United States government has commemorated this tragedy by making sure no one-person train runs on any US railroad. We could even call it the “Lac-Mégantic Rule.”

It is not too late. The final FRA rule should not be a yellow light with an arrow saying, This Way To 1-Person Crew Trains. It should be a bright red light, a Stop Signal. If sometime in the future there is some new development in train operation that meets a strong scientific standard for train safety, the FRA should convene a new hearing and develop new rules. But today there is no safe way to operate trains with one-person crews. So the only rule called for is no one-person trains.

If the FRA fails, as did their Canadian counterparts, to guarantee minimum crew standards that prohibit single crew operations, it is absolutely certain that more people will die. In Canada in the aftermath of the disaster, the Trudeau government is scrambling to try to make up for the industry self-regulation that led to an industry that has reported more runaway trains each year since 2013, the year of the wreck. Communities and rail workers across the continent are watching and expecting the FRA to act to prevent even more deaths from such risky operations.

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 Former Co-Chair and Organizer Mark Burrows Speaks at Chicago Break Free Rally

On Sunday, May 15th in Whiting, Indiana, former RWU Co-Chair Mark Burrows was invited to speak to a group of community members and environmental activists about rail safety. Mark touched on the Lac Megantic tragedy and frame-up of railroad workers in Canada, crew fatigue and single employee train crews.

Appeal from Railroad Workers United: No Single Employee Crews!

Public Comment Period Extended to June 15th at 11:59 PM EDT 

Tell the FRA:

"No Single Employee Train Crews!"

Email Your Message today!

Dear RWU Members & Supporters:

On March 15th, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) offricially announced a Proposed Rule on the whole question of crew staffing for trains in the United States. After careful consideration, RWU has come to the only conclusion possible: the Proposed Rule provides a road map for any and all rail carriers to obtain the FRA's blessing to run trains with a single employee. Therefore, RWU cannot support this Proposed Rule, period.

We continue to agree with the joint statement from nearly 7 years ago that the BLET and the UTU made in a joint Petition filed in June 2009 with the FRA on the question of traincrew  staffing which reads: “No conditions exist where one-person operations are safe.”  And since the Proposed Rule is predicated on the "safe" operation of trains with a single crew member, we must urge the FRA to promulgate a Rule that outlaws the practice. We urge all RWU members and all railroad workers to contact the FRA and tell them in plain language: "No single employee train crews!"

  • To write/FAX the FRA, click HERE.
  • To email the FRA, click HERE.
  • To view the RWU Letter to the FRA on the Proposed Rule, click HERE.
  • To view the FRA Proposed Rule, Click HERE.
  • To view the RWU Editorial on the Proposed Rule Click HERE.
  • To view a comprehensive article entitled "What's Wrong with Single Employee Train Operations?" with 21 reasons why they are unsafe and unworkable, click HERE.
  • To view the most recent RWU Resolution to Oppose Single Employe Operating Crews from March 2nd, 2015, see below or click HERE.
  • To view the original RWU Resolution on Single Employee Train crews from January 5th, 2010, click HERE
  •  

Railroaders’ Group Supports Rule to Ban Single Employee Train Operations

By Ron Kaminkow - Railroad Workers United, March 15, 2016

Railroad Workers United (RWU) – a coalition of railroad workers drawn from all crafts across North America – applauds the efforts by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to restrict the use of single employee train operations, and demand a two-person crew as a minimum staffing requirement on trains.

RWU has taken an unequivocal stand against single employee operations since our founding convention in 2008. In 2010, the RWU Steering Committee reiterated our position in a formal resolution in opposition to single mployee train crews (see attached). And in 2012, we initiated a campaign of activities designed to build opposition to the carriers’ plans for universal single employee train operations.

“Our efforts - together with those of the unions of the rail operating crafts in the last few years - have brought this issue before the general public and the government”, states locomotive engineer and RWU General Secretary Ron Kaminkow. “The proposed rule by the FRA released on Monday is a major step forward in the fight against the dangerous and reckless proposal by the nation’s rail carriers to run trains with a lone employee. While the FRA Proposed Rule is far from perfect, providing loopholes and allowing for exemptions in too many instances, it is certainly a major stride in the right direction.”

RWU - along with the rail unions and various citizens groups - have also been pushing on the legislative front at both the state and federal levels for a law that would outlaw single employee train crew operations. A number of states - most recently California - have outlawed single employee train operations, while a dozen or so more have bills pending. At the federal level, HR #1763 if adopted, would make the minimum train crew size of two employees - a certified engineer and a certified conductor - the law of the land. Opinion polls that have been conducted on the question find that more than 80% of the U.S. population favor such a law.

RWU will prepare a written statement in the coming weeks to submit to the FRA in the hope of improving the Proposed Rule. In addition, the organization plans to keep up its educational work and continue to mobilize railroad workers, citizens groups and environmental organizations to get behind efforts to outlaw single crew operations of trains.

If You Care About Railroad Safety You Must Defend Tom Harding

Editorial - Railroad Workers United, Highball, Winter 2016

Practically every North American railroader now knows about the tragic train wreck in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in July, 2013. With its tremendous loss of life and destruction, the disaster made headlines around the world. In the aftermath of that accident, as we discussed it amongst ourselves, details became known. One of those details was that within days of the wreck the locomotive engineer of the runaway train, Tom Harding, was arrested and ultimately charged. He and his Dispatcher face the possibility of life in prison if found guilty as charged. No company official of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MM&A) – the railroad upon which the wreck took place - nor the company itself have faced criminal charges.

To this day, there is confusion and disinformation circulated about that matter. For those of us in the fight for rail safety, it is imperative that we know the facts. This is key not just to prevent a grave injustice, but to prevent future repetitions of that incident and to stop the dangerous push by the rail carriers to deflect all liability for the consequences of their policy decisions and simply blame-the-worker every and any time there is an accident or injury, fatality or disaster.

Some railroaders – even a few known as safety conscious can get this issue wrong. Because conscientious trainmen and engineers take safety on the job so seriously, taking personal responsibility comes as second nature to us. No one wants to be seen as making excuses for a co-worker who doesn't take his/her job or their co-workers' safety seriously. As a result, some raise arguments that perhaps Tom Harding is guilty of something, that maybe he deserves to be charged. Therefore, it is crucial that we examine the facts.

Railroad Shop Workers Vote No on Merging Jobs

By Jon Flanders - Labor Notes, February 18, 2016

Image, right: A boilermaker works on a locomotive plow, a part that often gets damaged in operation. Railroad workers recently voted down a concessionary deal that would have blended machinists' and pipefitters' jobs together. Photo by the author.

Union members have become used to a certain pattern: threats of plant closings and layoffs, followed by a vote to reopen the contract and make concessions to “save jobs.”

In the railroad shops of the CSX corporation, this pattern has been broken.

Last fall CSX made an offer to its machinists and pipefitters—backed by their unions, the Machinists (IAM) and SMART. The tentative agreement would merge the two crafts into a single job, “Master Mechanic.” For instance, the master mechanic would install both power assemblies (previously machinists’ work) and radiators (previously pipefitters’ work).

Management painted the concessionary deal in glowing terms. But in December, workers in both crafts bucked the threat and overwhelmingly voted no.

FIXING ENGINES

Nationally there are around 8,000 railroad machinists. They rebuild locomotives from the ground up and do preventative maintenance such as replacing power assemblies, turbos, traction motors, and other mechanical items.

Pipefitters work on the extensive pipe systems on locomotives: air, fuel, and oil.

Collectively, these railroad shop workers maintain the locomotive fleet for all the major railroads in the U.S.

The critical role they play got front-page attention after a defective locomotive led to a 2013 disaster in the town of Lac Mégantic, Quebec. A runaway train carrying crude oil exploded, killing 47 people.

MORE WORK, SAME PAY

CSX Chief Administrative Officer Lisa Mancini claimed in a September press release that the contract deal reflected the unions’ and company’s “collective commitment to finding innovative ways to support our employees while driving long-term efficiency.”

Needless to say, the affected workers saw things a little differently. It looked to them like more work for the same pay.

Machinists and pipefitters would have to learn each other’s jobs. Previously, if a job called for both piping and mechanical, the two crafts might have worked together on a team. Now the whole job might be done by whoever was at hand—leading to job losses all around.

CSX was promising to guarantee jobs for two years, but not many thought the guarantee would last much longer.

The agreement would have given up not only traditional job jurisdictions, but also seniority and employee-protection agreements, where laid-off machinists are paid a percentage of their wages for a period of time based on years of service.

Layoffs are a particular concern for these workers—who might otherwise be forced to move rather than spend time looking for another job near home.

RAUCOUS MEETINGS

The initial proposal met with resistance; meetings reportedly went very badly. Workers who’d always been quiet before were making ominous-sounding threats against union officers.

Next CSX closed the 100-year-old Corbin locomotive shop in Kentucky and the Erwin railyard in Tennessee, citing the decline in coal shipments.

Many machinists and pipefitters lost jobs in these shops. Layoffs of other crafts, such as the boilermakers, followed. Obviously management hoped this would bring pressure to bear.

In reality, despite the decline in coal shipments, CSX has yet to go in the red. Last summer, while it was negotiating the concessions, the company announced its profits had risen 4.5 percent in the second quarter and it had beaten its own expectations for earnings. In the full year 2015, the company made $3.6 billion in operating profit.

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