Rail safety problems trigger protests

CHICAGO – The issue of rail safety has, in a manner of speaking, hit the streets.

Railroad Workers United reported that the first protest about safety, or lack of it, on rail lines occurred in Chicago on May 27. Activists from Rising Tide Chicago interrupted the keynote address by Burlington Northern-Santa Fe President Carl Ice to a convention of rail shippers. The activists held up signs reading “BNSF: Profits over safety” and “BNSF: Bomb trains kill.”

The signs refer to recent wrecks of oil-laden trains. Many such trains pass through Chicago, the top U.S. rail junction. But earlier this year, one derailed and caught fire near Galena, in northwestern Illinois.  Another derailed and exploded in North Dakota.

“BNSF makes billions of dollars putting our communities and climate at risk,” protester Kevin Oliver told local reporters. “So we took this action to take a stand against the obscene wealth that is being generated at the expense of our safety.”

Despite those disasters, BNSF and other railroads are lobbying for delays in safety devices, the protesters point out. They’re opposing installing electronically controlled pneumatic braking systems to help slow speeds of oil trains and other freight trains.

The railroads also oppose another safety technology, positive train control (PTC).  Several years ago, Congress mandated they install PTC nationwide by the end of this year, but now they’re lobbying to postpone that deadline till 2020 or beyond.

That draws the ire of Railroad Workers United, a coalition of rank-and-file rail workers, many of them members of two leading rail unions: The Transportation Division of Smart, and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen, a Teamsters sector.

Railroad Workers United and the two unions quote experts as saying that had PTC been installed on the northbound Amtrak tracks in North Philadelphia, the May 12 fatal derailment there would have been prevented. Amtrak responded by planning to install cameras in locomotives. And it won’t budge off its one-crewmember – the engineer – per train standard.

“It is roundly agreed by railroad executives, union officials, and industry insiders that had Positive Train Control (PTC) been in place and in effect on this section of track, the wreck would more than likely not have been possible,” the group’s resolution says.

“PTC would have resulted in a train brake application in order to slow the train, recognizing its speed was excessive and therefore unable to negotiate the tight curve ahead. PTC has been mandated by Congress, but complete implementation has been delayed on the Northeast Corridor and elsewhere for myriad reasons. In Amtrak’s case, one of these reasons is a lack of adequate funding from Congress,” the resolution adds.

“Amtrak has been underfunded for decades and forced to scrape by, cutting corners and deferring maintenance, ever under the microscope by a budget cutting Congress more concerned with ideological purity and political expediency than with safety and security.”

Photo: Rising Tide Chicago


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.