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A neoliberal train wreck?

By Guy Miller - Socialist Worker, May 20, 2015

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 media coverage of the deadly Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia, which killed eight people and injured more than 200, focused on the engineer, but there is a long history of cutbacks and cost-cutting that set the stage for this catastrophe. Guy Miller, a railroad worker for 38 years with Chicago Northwestern and Union Pacific and a retired member of United Transportation Union Local 577, looks at where the blame for this tragedy really lies.

EVERY INDUSTRIAL accident is different in its details, but depressingly similar in the cover-up.

Before the dust settles and the debris is cleared away, the company spokesperson is busy framing the story and assigning blame. The media are quick to join the feeding frenzy--and the responsibility always stops at the employee farthest down the food chain. On the railroads, that employee is often the engineer.

On Amtrak run 188 on May 12, that engineer was named Brandon Bostian. Brandon's public trial began almost immediately. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter didn't have--or seem to care about--any evidence, but he knew where to point the finger: "Clearly, he was reckless and irresponsible in his actions. I don't know what was going on with him. I don't know what was going on in the cab. But there's really no excuse."

At this point, the engineer's safety record is usually trotted out. In the operating department, "safety violations" litter the records of even the most conscientious employees. Improper footwear, stepping on a rail, failure to ring the bell over one of the hundreds of grade crossings--all of these mean violations placed in a personnel file. Citations are easy to come by. Like a hound dog picks up fleas, conductors and engineers pick up safety violations.

The problem with Brandon Bostian is that his record was spotless. So something else had to be dragged into the equation. That something proved to be Brandon's sexual orientation, which conservative radio host Sandy Rios and later other right-wing media incredibly declared was a "factor" in the crash.

While most people now know that Brandon was a supporter of marriage equality, few know he was a safety fanatic. In addition to the normal routine, he had his own procedures. "At work, I run through a five-item checklist after I check my engine, and before I touch anything," he wrote on Facebook. "Then a 10-item checklist before I move the train an inch."

On the day of the accident, because of over-scheduling and a delayed inbound train, Bostian had only 30 minutes between runs. When it's to their advantage, trainmasters and other company officials put constant pressure on workers to short-circuit safety inspections and "get out of Dodge." May 12 may well have been such a day.

Clearly, brother Bostian was a model employee. Just before hitting the curve at Frankford Junction, he was complying with the rulebook and ringing the engine bell through the 30th Street Station. This isn't the behavior of a reckless and irresponsible engineer. This isn't the action of someone about to accelerate from the posted speed to 106 miles per hour less than a minute later.

Whatever happened to Bostian--after suffering a concussion in the crash, he has said that he remembers little about what took place in the minutes before the derailment--we must look elsewhere to place the blame for this tragic accident.

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IN 2008, Congress instructed the nation's railroads to install Positive Train Control (PTC) by 2015. Positive Train Control is a sophisticated system for monitoring and controlling train speed, separation and collision avoidance.

From the start, the carriers dragged their feet. Rather than spend money on making it happen, they invested in a small army of lobbyists to make sure the mandate would take as long as possible to implement. The list of lobbyists is a Who's Who of Washington insiders, including former Democratic Rep. William Lipinski and Linda Daschle, wife of highly connected former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

Heedless of safety concerns and unmoved by the Metro-North accident of 2013 that killed four people in the Bronx--another accident that PTC could have prevented--these lobbyists have succeeded in buying time. Under legislation passed by the Senate Finance Committee and now pending before Congress, the deadline for implementing Positive Train Control would be extended five years until 2020.

Within hours of the crash on May 12, the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee approved a bill that slashed Amtrak's budget for the next fiscal year by $251 million, to $1.1 billion.

Short of PTC, there are other, older forms of train control dating back to the 1960s. In my 38 years on the railroad, I worked with two of them: Automatic Train Control (ATC) and Automatic Train Stop (ATS). Either of these systems would have prevented the derailment of Amtrak 188.

ATC was already in use on the southbound track, just on the other side of the same deadly curve that train number 188 hit at twice the speed limit. If the system had been positioned in advance of the accident site, the train would have stopped automatically if the engineer didn't respond immediately to a warning bell.

The railroad knew just how dangerous this curve was. The Frankford wreck--which is legendary among East Coast railroaders--occurred on that same curve 72 years before. On Labor Day weekend in 1943, the inbound Congressional Limited derailed at the exact same spot, resulting in the death of 79 people. So why wasn't the ATC system in place?

As recently as the late 1980s, every commuter train in the Chicago Metra system had a second person in the engine cab. Although still known as a "fireman," this second employee was in reality a second engineer. Having just one person in the cab leaves no room for unforeseen events that can have disastrous consequences. What happens if the engineer has a heart attack, a seizure, an aneurysm--or, yes, simply falls asleep?

In March 1987, during the effort to eliminate the fireman's position in the cab, Metra spokesperson Christopher Knapton told the Chicago Tribune, "One-person crews have shown no decline in safety." I doubt if the eight dead passengers in Philadelphia would second Knapton's opinion; at any rate, it's too late to ask them.

Fighting Fatigue

By Jenny Brown - Labor Notes, December 3, 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.

Paul Proudlock went to bed at midnight to calibrate his sleep for a freight train he was to drive at 2 p.m. the next day. At 2:15 a.m., a Canadian Pacific dispatcher called him and asked him to take a passenger train in three hours.

“I’m not rested,” Proudlock is heard explaining in a company recording. The dispatcher threatened to discipline him and cancel his 2 p.m. train. “You’re obligated to go. If you answer the phone, you have to go.”

“No, I’m not,” said Proudlock. “I’m obligated to do the safe thing first… I drive a train.”

This kind of pressure is commonplace, according to railroad and airline workers. They say managers push workers to pilot planes, trains, and buses when they are too tired to safely do so. The stakes are high for the workers—and for the general public.


In a survey of freight train operators conducted by the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, 96 percent said they had gone to work tired. More alarmingly, three-quarters said they fell asleep while working—in the previous month. Among those who, like Proudlock, turned down jobs because of fatigue, 43 percent said they faced investigation or discipline.

“They’ll pressure people… and people don’t know what leg to stand on,” said CSX locomotive engineer J.P. Wright, who is based in Kentucky. “There are so many gray areas in the contract, if you could see a flow chart, it’s like a Merrie Melodies crazy cartoon.”

The railroads claim they don’t push people to work tired. Regulators scolded Canadian Pacific in the Proudlock case.

The main problem with freight railroads, said Wright, is that “they’ve short-staffed everything to the bone.” So when somebody takes time off, others have to unexpectedly fill in, creating cascades of scheduling complexity.

While rest times were increased in a 2008 rewrite of railroad scheduling rules, fatigue problems persist.

And regulations don’t help if the penalties are low, along with the chances of being fined. “I was just told, on a recorded CSX line, that they knew specifically they were violating the rest law but they would just go ahead and pay the fine,” said Wright, who is co-chair of the cross-union caucus Railroad Workers United.

Rail companies fight new rules to prevent crew fatigue: Leaked Transport Canada report details high levels of 'extreme fatigue' among freight train operators

By John Nicol and Dave Seglins - CBC News, October 8, 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.

Canada’s major freight rail companies are fighting moves by the federal transportation regulator to curb “extreme fatigue” among railway engineers, a CBC News investigation has found.

CN Rail, CP and the Railway Association of Canada went on the attack two weeks ago at a “tense and heated” meeting of industry, union and government representatives, according to a number of people present.

The conflict was over research by Transport Canada that found high levels of exhaustion among workers driving freight trains, and proposals by the regulator to impose new limits on scheduling to help reduce their fatigue.

"The body language from industry was, 'You're not going to push us around,'" said Rob Smith of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference recalling a meeting two weeks ago of the Fatigue Management Working Group, part of the federal government’s Advisory Council on Railway Safety.

He said industry was determined to ​discredit Transport Canada's research and thwart the regulator's proposals.

CBC received internal documents

CBC News has obtained internal Transport Canada documents, including meeting minutes and the working group's draft report that details widespread fatigue among freight engineers and proposes mandatory restrictions — some of which are already law in the U.S. — on how workers are scheduled to prevent exhaustion.

The government report concludes that rail lags behind the airline and trucking industries in dealing with fatigue. Reviews over the last three decades have always left it to the railway industry and its unions to sort out the problem.

In 2009, the regulator established the fatigue working group to address this longstanding issue.

Transport Canada's own analysis of CN and CP’s employee scheduling records from six different rail terminals across Canada concluded that, based on the timing and length of each shift, assigned through an unpredictable on-call system, that “extreme fatigue” was rampant:

  • In four per cent of cases, employees were already “extremely fatigued” at the start of their shifts;
  • 45 per cent of employees became extremely exhausted during work;
  • and nearly all, or 99 per cent, were fatigued at least once during the month.

Combined with the results of a union survey, Transport Canada is now proposing enhanced safeguards and wants to harmonize Canada’s rail rules with requirements already in place in the U.S. that limit the hours and days railroaders can spend at work or on call.

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