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What’s Wrong with Single Employee Train Operations?

By Ron Kaminkow - Railroad Workers United, March 2021

At first glance, the casual observer from outside of the rail industry is prone to say that single employee train operation sounds dangerous. “What if the engineer has a heart attack?” is an often heard question. And while this question has merit, there are many other and far more complex and unanswered questions about just how single employee train operations could be accomplished safely and efficiently for the train crew, the railroad and the general public. How will the train make a back-up move? What happens when the train hits a vehicle or pedestrian? How will the train crew member deal with “bad-order” equipment in his/her train, or make pick-ups and set-outs en route? What about job briefings and calling signals, copying mandatory directives and reminders of slow orders? These are just some questions that we take up in this article.

Remote Control and “Utility Conductors”

In recent years, the Class I rail carriers have been biding their time, slowly but surely inserting language into recent contracts with both unions of the operating crafts that will facilitate their schemes to run over the road trains with a lone employee. They have made arrangements with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen (BLET) to allow the BLET represented crew member to make use remote controlled locomotives. With this scenario, the lone operator would strap on a belt pack, dismount from the locomotive, and run the locomotive by remote control operation (RCO) using radio control from the ground. And the carriers have also made deals with the United Transportation Union (UTU) to allow for “utility conductors”; i.e. a conductor who can “attach” to one or more over-the-road trains during the course of a single tour of duty. Between the two arrangements, the rail carriers apparently believe they can safely and efficiently operate road trains with just one employee aboard as opposed to the current standard of two. We disagree.

RWU Statement to Pipelines & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in Regard to Proposal to Ship LNG by Rail

By Ron Kaminkow - Railroad Workers United, August 6, 2019

Docket Management System
U.S. Department of Transportation
West Building, Ground Floor, Room W12–140, Routing Symbol M–30 1200
New Jersey Avenue SE, Washington, DC 20590

August 6th, 2019

Comment Re: PHMSA–2019–0100, Draft Environmental Assessment for a Special Permit Request for Liquefied Natural Gas by Rail

To William S. Schoonover, Associate Administrator of Hazardous Materials Safety, and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration:

Railroad Workers United (RWU) urges you to deny the special permit requested by Energy Transport Solutions, LLC to ship large quantities of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) using unit trains of DOT-113C120W tank cars. Rail shipments of LNG would pose dramatic health, safety, and environmental risks to railroad workers and com-munities across the United States. LNG train derailments could cause fires and ex-plosions, property damage, mass injuries and fatalities - impacts that are largely ignored in PHMSA’s cursory, 23-page analysis.

As an organization of working rank & file railroad workers from all crafts and all car-riers, Railroad Workers United is deeply concerned about the casual attitude to-wards shipping LNG by rail. Over the course of the last six years or so we have wit-nessed the danger inherent in shipping Bakken crude oil by rail with limited over-sight and regulation, a danger that continues to this day.

It is obvious that the proposal to ship LNG by rail likewise is inherently dangerous for train crews, trackside communities and the public at large if it is not moved in a safe manner. Most of the oil trains which have crashed over the last six years or so - re-sulting in spills, fires, and explosions – were in fact made up of DOT-113C120W tank cars, ones of the type that apparently are being proposed now for LNG trains. Therefore, before any LNG is moved in unit trains across the U.S., Railroad Workers United recommends the following regulation:

  • LNG shall not be moved by rail unless it is moved in tank cars that have been crash tested to withstand puncturing. Many of the rail cars currently in service are not capable of safely transporting LNG and should not be used in this capacity.
  • Electrically Controlled Pnuematic (ECP) braking should be employed on all unit trains of LNG as a means of possibly preventing a disaster, and/or mitigating the extent of the disaster in the event of a derailment/crash.
  • The longer and heavier the train, the greater the propensity for it to derail, and having derailed, the greater chance of disaster. We recommend all such dangerous trains be limited to no more than 50 cars.
  • All such trains must have a minimum of at least two persons in the cab of the locomotive to ensure safe move-ment and delivery of the product, and to mitigate against disaster throughout its routing, should there be a mishap.
  • Prior to departure from the originating terminal, all such trains must undergo a thorough and proper inspection by host railroad employees who are properly trained and certified to do the work.
  • Prior to movement on the mainline, such trains should have an advance “high-rail” escort service to ensure that the track ahead is clear and in proper condition for the safe passage of the train.
  • After a string of oil train derailments, fires and explosions, crude oil train speed was limited to 40 mph in urban areas. Unit trains of LNG should likewise be so restricted.

Only once these safety features at a minimum are adopted would RWU be comfortable in supporting the proposed shipment of LNG by rail.

Ron Kaminkow
General Secretary
Railroad Workers United

Download (PDF).

Brain Labor Report 1.31.18 - JP Wright, Railroad Workers Safety

By Wes Brain - Brain Labor Report, January 31, 2018

On the Brain Labor Report for January 31, 2018 we talk with J.P. Wright, railroad worker, singer, songwriter and organizer with Railroad Workers United. We discuss safety and the deadly impact of austerity and missed priorities.

Download Here - Via archive.org

Drop ALL the Charges NOW! Rail Safety Requires No Scapegoating

By staff - The Evidence is in: The Train Crew did not Cause the Lac-Mégantic Tragedy, January 29, 2018

On Feb 5, 2018, Canadian railroaders Tom Harding and Richard Labrie are ordered back to court to face addition federal charges, even after being acquitted in a 3 month frame up trial related to the Lac-Mégantic oil train wreck of 2013.

Set up to fail!  Every danger was put in place by out-of-control railroad managers and policy makers, while the government looked away. None of those dangers was created on July 6, 2013. They were all in place long before that and part of a system and a culture of recklessness.  But no owners or top manager decision makers are ever going to face trial.  They are actually free and running trains around the world right this minute.

The continued targeting of Harding and Labrie is part of the ongoing attempt by the Canadian government to save face and divert attention away from worldwide calls for a real investigation of who set up the dangerous factors that killed 47 and destroyed the downtown.

The charges now being prosecuted under the Railway Safety Act and the Fisheries Act are part of an ominous recent move to criminalize workplace rules which has been a long time goal of employers who wish to shift all liability onto their work forces.  They also represent a significant abuse of power by the government in this case, since a jury has already acquitted the two.

The essence of why real rail safety requires that the Canadian government must drop ALL the Charges NOW.

Canada rail workers win fight against frame-up

By John Steele - The Militant, February 5, 2018

The rail bosses and federal government were handed a stinging defeat when the three-and-a-half-month frame-up trial of locomotive engineer Tom Harding and train traffic controller Richard Labrie, both members of United Steelworkers Local 1976, and low-level former Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway manager Jean Demaitre, ended here Jan. 19. The 12-member jury declared the three former employees “not guilty” on all counts from the July 2013 derailment and explosion of a 72-car runaway oil train in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.

Harding, the main target of the frame-up, was also acquitted on two lesser charges. The jury announced the verdict to a packed courtroom on the ninth day of deliberations.

“I am very happy with the verdict,” retired worker and Lac-Mégantic resident Jean Clusiault, told the media at the courthouse. Clusiault’s 24-year-old daughter, Kathy, was one of those killed at the Musi-Café near the tracks when the train derailed and exploded. “They treated these people horribly, like killers,” he said, referring to the three framed up men. “They broke their lives.”

Many people from Lac-Mégantic attended the trial. Clusiault was there every court day. When reporters asked him who he thought was guilty, he pulled a rumpled piece of paper from his pocket and started reading a list of high company officials, beginning with former CEO Edward Burkhardt.

“This is a victory for workers,” Gilbert Carette, a former Quebec highway maintenance department worker, told the Militant. “This tragedy, caused by company negligence and government deregulation of the rail industry, was placed on the shoulders of innocent workers.”

Carette is active in the Citizens and Groups Coalition for Rail Safety in Lac-Mégantic, which has been fighting for the federal and Quebec governments to build a railway bypass around the town.

“The Citizens Coalition,” said spokesperson Robert Bellefleur in a post-verdict press release, “has always insisted that the three employees were ordinary actors in a business scheme planned at high management levels to ensure maximum benefits for top company officials and shareholders of the oil and railway companies involved.”

'Bomb Train': Oil Execs Try to Blame Workers for Tragic Accident

A Decade of Train Wrecks: What Has Gone Wrong?

By J.P. Wright - Labor Notes, January 24, 2018

On December 18 an Amtrak passenger train traveling at 78 miles an hour derailed on a 30 mile-per-hour curve outside DuPont, Washington, killing three people and injuring scores more.

It’s the latest of five major passenger train wrecks in the U.S. in the last decade, and it came during the trial of three workers indicted for the 2013 freight train disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. (Last week, a jury found the workers not guilty on all counts.)

Why do these tragedies keep happening? We miss the point when we simply pinpoint the worker who “screwed up”—without asking why that worker screwed up.

Train wrecks often result from hidden factors over which the individual worker has little control, including poor work schedules, chronic crew fatigue, limited time off, inadequate staffing, lack of training, improper qualifying, task overload because of crew downsizing, deferred maintenance, antiquated infrastructure, and the employers’ failures to implement available safety technology. It is almost never just one of these factors, but a complex web that can result in disaster.

Rail Workers Acquitted in Trial on Deadly Lac-Mégantic Oil Train Disaster

By Justin Mikulka - DeSmog Blog, January 23, 2018

The train engineer and two additional rail workers who faced charges for the deadly July 2013 oil train accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, were acquitted on Friday after the jury deliberated for nine days. If convicted of all charges, they potentially faced life in prison. 

The end of the trial of these three employees for their role in the Canadian oil train disaster that resulted in 47 deaths and the destruction of much of downtown Lac-Mégantic appears to have brought some closure to residents of the still-recovering town — although most are still waiting for justice.

As the trial began, the BBC reported the sentiments of Lac-Mégantic resident Jean Paradis, who lost three friends in the accident and thought the wrong people were on trial.

It's clear to me the main shareholder, MMA, are not here. Transport Canada is not here. Transport Canada have let cheap companies run railroads in Canada with less money for more profit…” Paridis told the BBC. Transport Canada is the Canadian regulatory agency with rail oversight.

Another resident, Jean Clusiault, who lost his daughter in the disaster, told the CBC that after the decision, “I felt relieved because these are not the right people who should be there.”

The sentiment that these three men should not have been found guilty was even expressed by the former CEO of the rail company that operated the train that caused the disaster.

“I was happy when I heard the verdict. I think the jury made the right decision,” Edward Burkhardt, former chairman of rail company Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA), told Radio-Canada.

No rail executives, politicians, or regulators were ever charged with any crimes relating to the Lac-Mégantic disaster.

Based on the past four years of reporting on the literal and figurative boom in Bakken oil trains, I have written a book about the story of the bomb trains — from Lac-Mégantic to Trump — which addresses the question of who was to blame for the lethal accident in this small Quebec town and for the many oil train accidents across North America that followed.

The following is the first chapter of that book, detailing what happened in Lac-Mégantic on July 6, 2013.

RWU Statement Upon the Acquittal of Canadian Railroad Workers

By Ron Kaminkow - The Evidence is in: The Train Crew did not Cause the Lac-Mégantic Tragedy, January 19, 2018

Railroad workers – together with all citizens concerned with worker justice – across the continent are celebrating the acquittal of Canadian railroaders who were wrongly accused by the Crown for the tragedy at Lac-Mégantic in which 47 people were killed when a long and heavy oil train crashed and exploded in the middle of that small town in July of 2013.

At the time of the wreck, Railroad Workers United (RWU) had spoken out quickly, releasing a statement within a week condemning the reckless practices on the rail carrier – the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MM&A) – and its renegade CEO Ed Burkhart. Since then, RWU has defended the railroad workers, denying that they in any way should be charged with a criminal offense, demanding that the charges be dropped, and that the Crown charge the real criminals – the MM&A bosses and the government regulators who had turned a blind eye to their irresponsible actions regarding safety.

Once the workers were arrested, RWU took part in protest actions, assisted with organizing a defense committee, began raising funds for the defense, and attempted to raise awareness of the issue on both sides of the border. Despite the overwhelming evidence of company recklessness and irresponsibility, the Crown refused to drop the charges, and proceeded onward to the trial which finally commenced – more than four years after the event – in September 2017.

While the prosecution focused largely on a single event – the alleged failure of the locomotive engineer to tie enough handbrakes, they were tripped up at every turn by their own witnesses – government, company, “expert” and otherwise – who, by their testimony, incriminated the company and the government regulators rather than the defendants.

Some of the highlights that were revealed at the trial include:

1 – The implementation of single employee train crews just months earlier, had played a key role in the wreck. One other railroad that had been operating trains in this fashion for years (QNSL) had provided 10 days of training and made 69 safety accommodations prior to the implementation of such operations. The MM&A did none of these, while the government stood idly by. After the wreck however, Transport Canada outlawed the further implementation of the practice.

2 – The MM&A had allocated practically no funding for safety or emergency training, nor standardization of rules compliance, and had a terrible safety record compared to most rail carriers.

3 – The train in question was thousands of tons over limit. Significantly, the company had no set policy for the number of handbrakes that were necessary to secure such trains. That number remains in question, but experts now agree that the number for such a train on such a grade is well more than had been considered at the time.

4 – The train – by company policy – was left unattended on the mainline on a steep grade with no derail or other means of protection against runaway.

5 – The train’s lead locomotive was defective, and ultimately this fact would catalyze the runaway. Despite awareness of this fact, the company had failed to make necessary repairs to it, nor utilize it as a trailing unit in the consist. In addition, the mainline trackage was in a dilapidated state because of deferred maintenance by the carrier.

6 – Company policy was to leave the train’s automatic brake in the release position, even though the generally accepted practice by railroad policy and law is to leave unattended trains with the automatic brake in the “full-service” (fully applied) position. Every car of the train could have had its air brakes fully applied, but the company – against general rule and wisdom of a hundred years – insisted that engineers not set the air brakes on the train when leaving the train alone. Had this reckless and bizarre policy not been insisted upon by MM&A, the train almost certainly could not have rolled away.

All told over the course of four months, the jury gained a picture of a railroad company that was oblivious to safety concerns, one far more interested in making money than in the safety of its workers or trackside communities. While RWU applauds the jury’s verdict and sees the acquittal as a victory – not just for the MM&A railroad workers but for all railroad workers – we must remain vigilant. Railroad carriers in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere are intent on criminalizing employees, pointing the finger at them when something goes wrong, as a means of deflecting attention away from their own failures, whether it be inadequate training, lack of qualifying time, chronic crew fatigue, deferred maintenance, dangerously long and heavy trains, inadequate staffing and more. Railroad workers must be ready, willing and able to come to one another’s defense to prevent the rail carriers and the state from criminalizing our behavior while they – the real criminals – get off Scott free.

Tom Harding and Richard Labrie Did Not Cause The Lac-Mégantic Tragedy

By admin - The Evidence is in: The Train Crew did not Cause the Lac-Mégantic Tragedy, January 14, 2018

Any conviction of rail workers at the end of the long danger chain is an obstacle to safety or accountability. That can only come from a full public inquiry that holds policy makers responsible.

Here’s a review of some of the critically important factors that will never be addressed by scapegoating rail workers

The Montreal Maine and Atlantic (MMA) rail management and their US based parent company Rail World Inc put communities and employees at risk across the region, and not just in the specific instance of the Lac-Mégantic wreck. These increased risks almost all still exist, without local benefits or safeguards. None of the volatile crude oil shipped contributes to the regional economy but all the risks are local.

MMA made the deliberate decision to run unit trains of the most explosive oil:

  • With a single crew member who could ONLY move the train forward. Reverse moves and splitting for any safety eventuality was prohibited by this decision.
  • In known inadequate tank cars that were mislabeled as to content.
  • too long to fit in the available derail protected siding, which are designed for the purpose of holding such trains and use of which would have guaranteed that the wreck couldn’t have happened.
  • with completely inadequate liability insurance for any risks they imposed on communities.
  • without any plan for fire and other consequences that might occur with it’s dangerous cargo.
  • without backup qualified staff to respond to eventualities such as the locomotive fire. They refused to send the only and obvious qualified person available (Harding) to check the train in order to save money. Ruthless cutting of the workforce made qualified backup unavailable.

MMA made the deliberate decision to run the locomotive that caught fire in the lead despite:

  • known defective repair that ultimately led to the fire
  • known defective performance that also increased local environmental damage
  • known defective rollaway protection in the wiring of the battery
  • requests for the simple reordering of the consist that would have absolutely prevented the wreck

MMA made the decision to purposely overload the safety weight limits on individual inadequate tank cars for the sole purpose of profit with no concern for consequences of their action. There was no meaningful oversight of this crucial aspect of safety by Transport Canada or anyone else.

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