Rail workers blast Trump use of coronavirus to trash safety rules, inspections
Chicago's METRA system is just one of many commuter railroads across the country to which Trump has given the green light to drop safety rules during the coronavirus pandemic. | Video screenshot

Railroad Workers United, a nationwide rank-and-file organization of workers from railroads, including commuter lines and subways, blasted the GOP Trump administration’s use of the national coronavirus pandemic to suspend – trash – most rail safety rules, tests and inspections.

“We cannot sit back and let the carriers and the government make us pay the price for their criminal lack of foresight” in preparing to combat the pandemic, the group said in a statement.

The railroads, led by the lobby for the freight firms, sought the March 28 decision by the Federal Railroad Administration, over both worker protests and despite efforts by rail unions to get carriers to keep upholding safety on their own – and to introduce or enhance anti-virus protections for rail workers.

FRA decided to waive many, if not most, rail safety standards for 60 days because the rail firms could not meet those requirements and run trains due to short-staffing, the coronavirus threat, or both.

As of today some 245.000 people in the U.S. have tested positive for the coronavirus, and more than 5,900 have died. That’s a death rate of more than 2 percent, compared to 0.1 percent for  normal “flu.”

RWU said rail workers are particularly unprotected against community spread of the virus and FRA only made a bad situation worse. What FRA did not say, but RWU did, was one reason the agency cited – the short-staffing – the freight railroads brought on themselves by cutting 20,000 workers last year.

In waiving the safety rules, one of the few left that remained mandated was that freight train brakes must be at 100 percent efficiency when the train starts its run. But after that, the brakes can be at 85 percent for the rest of the run. And if railroads have to run their freights for 1,200 miles without brake inspections due to “the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” they can do so.

Almost everything else, it seems, got tossed, RWU stated. “As the nation’s rail carriers drag their feet and fail to live up to their responsibilities under the law to provide a safe workplace, railroad workers and their organizations are demanding action from the rail carriers,” it explained.

FRA’s action, and the freight railroads’ inaction before that, steamed RWU.

“Many of the regulations that you have worked under – in some cases for your entire career on the railroad – will no longer be enforced. This is a total game-changer,” it said. “Be prepared to be ordered to do any one of a number of tasks, that yesterday would have been a violation of federal law, yet today, failure to carry them out could result in termination!”

Health and safety rules Trump’s FRA temporarily tossed out, at railroads’ request, include part or all of the rules on track safety, track and bridge maintenance – including safety of the workers doing those jobs – railroad record-keeping, train and engine protection, switches and what to do in derailments, testing for drug and alcohol use, keeping radios and wireless communications working, limits on hours of service for passenger train crews, locomotive inspections and tests, and grade crossing rules.

The FRA’s waivers also cover commuter trains, such as New York’s Metro North and the New Haven and Long Island Railroads, Chicago’s Metra and Philadelphia’s SEPTA. And they cover Amtrak.

“Meantime, the FRA has so far refused to respond in such fashion to the rail unions’ petition, ignoring their pleas to – among other things – recall to service some of the thousands who have been laid off in recent months,” RWU said.

“Yet, while they remain in furlough status — compliments of the carriers’ scorched-earth business model of Precision Scheduled Railroading —  railroads are clamoring about ‘labor shortages’ and are granted relief by the FRA! This reaches new depths of arrogance and tyranny, much less evil and immorality.”

Two rail union presidents also demanded the FRA reverse course and order the nation’s freight railroads to – quite literally – clean up their act, including their engine cabs, workplaces and even make sure hotels where railroaders at the end of long shifts sleep overnight at company expense are checked and disinfected.

“The employees we represent are essential to the health, safety, and security of the nation,” said Dennis Pierce of Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, a Teamsters sector, and Jeremy Ferguson, president of Smart’s Transportation Division, the old United Transportation Union.

“Therefore, it is necessary that the railroads take immediate and appropriate precautions to mitigate against the spread of the virus amongst their workforces, to minimize the exposure of their employees to the virus during the performance of their duties, and that Class I railroads maintain sufficient staffing levels to compensate for reduced headcounts caused by sick employees and family members, as well as to seamlessly handle predicted increases in volume once the virus begins to subside.”

The two raised the issue with the FRA after Pierce went public with the problems his engineers face in trying to stay healthy. In a long letter to his members, Pierce described conditions ranging from dirty locomotive cabs to carriers putting crew members into “questionable hotels with no food” for their overnight stays, to transporting the crews in small 4-person minivans where “social distancing” can’t occur to prevent community spread of the coronavirus.

Pierce and his union’s state and local health and safety officials are still lobbying the railroads to provide the workers with personal protective equipment, such as N95 masks and sanitizers. His letter implied the carriers’ CEOs, whom he contacted, mostly turned a deaf ear.

“It is unfortunate that in many cases, certain of the nation’s rail carriers still don’t seem to understand just how important their employees are to our nation’s survival and recovery from the coronavirus pandemic,” Pierce wrote.

“While some rail carriers have made significant strides in providing a safe and healthy workplace for Engineers and Trainmen, others continue to ignore the concerns of their employees and their unions.”

The FRA waiver and its application for mass transit systems come as they and their commuter railroads report increasing numbers of positive coronavirus tests among their workers, plus one big boss. SEPTA had 11 workers test positive as of March 28, the Metropolitan Boston Transportation Authority had 18 sick workers, the MTA had dozens more.

It also had five deaths as of March 27, the same day its own chairman and CEO, Patrick Foye, tested positive for the coronavirus. Spurred by the deaths – and by scathing criticism from Transport Workers Local 100 President Tony Utano – the agency ordered and got 75,000 masks for workers from New York health officials the next day.

“The MTA must provide masks NOW to frontline transit workers. Otherwise, the moment is rapidly approaching where bus and subway workers will do what is necessary to protect themselves and their families. Dedication and duty does not mean using transit workers as cannon fodder,” Utano said.

But the MTA also said wearing the masks was not mandatory, except for certain crafts of workers, though any MTA worker could ask for, and get, a mask.

Teamsters Rail Canada is also raising hell about Canadian National Railways’ refusal to clean up north of the border. CN is one of Canada’s two largest transcontinental roads.

“Many Teamster representatives approached CN on different levels to express anxiety with the lack of precautions with regards to the virus and to share ideas of how to mitigate the spread of coronavirus between the workers,” the union said.

It described dirty workstations, desks, chairs, computers, locomotives, bunkhouses and “transportation utilized to move train crews from one location to another.” And CN gives its engineers “two alcohol infused ‘wet naps,’ the size of a moist towelette you would find at a fast food restaurant, to safely sanitize a locomotive.”

“What CN is suggesting would be the equivalent of cleaning your car with a Q-tip,” said Teamsters Canada Rail Conference President Lyndon Isaak.

His union said its members report “many bunkhouses are being utilized to capacity, some of these facilities contain communal kitchens, washrooms and common rooms making social distancing almost impossible.” Other Canadian rail carriers are working with the Teamsters to make sure there are sanitation supplies, cut bunkhouse capacity, and post Health Canada coronavirus guidelines, “CN continues to operate as though it’s business as usual.

“The perception of the TCRC and its members is that CN’s focus is train delay and profits over the health and safety of workers,” explained Isaak. “CN risks losing members of its workforce if they don’t change their priorities immediately.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.



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