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Union President Offers Sensible Ways To Improve Rail Safety – Urges Congressional Action

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The President of the leading AFL-CIO union dealing with railroad workers, Edward Wytkind, offers a series of sensible ideas to help improve railroad safety. His proposals set forth in the San Antonio Express-News are reprinted here. Mr. Wytkind is president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO. He represents several million rail, mass transit, aviation, highway, longshore, maritime and other transportation workers.

In Oneida, N.Y., it was propane. In Brooks, Ky., it was methyl ethyl ketone. And in Macdona, 17 miles from downtown San Antonio, as residents remember, it was chlorine.

Each community has experienced freight train accidents recently, with chemical spills that killed or injured rail workers and residents. These and other accidents were not caused by bad luck. Rather, they are grim reminders of a rail industry that too often skimps on safety, training, staffing and technology and whose powerful lobby has derailed every attempt by Congress to update federal rail safety laws since they were due for “reauthorization” almost a decade ago.

The new majority in Congress appears poised to get serious about updating rail safety laws. The House is discussing comprehensive legislation that I hope will be passed soon.

With more traffic on the rails, the risks are getting higher — 1.7 million carloads of hazardous material are transported by rail every year. Just one ruptured rail car of chlorine could kill 100,000 people in a densely populated area, according to a U.S. Navy study.

The Macdona wreck should have been a wake-up call. According to federal accident investigators, the probable cause of the accident was crew fatigue. At issue were Union Pacific’s train crew scheduling practices, which had required the train engineer to work long hours in the weeks before the accident.

“Eleven of his workdays were 14 hours, with one day totaling 22 hours,” the National Transportation Safety Board found.

At the time of the accident, UP “did not have a formal process by which employees could, without the risk of disciplinary action, decline a job assignment because of inadequate rest,” its report says.

The good news is that Congress can fix some of these problems.

The rail corporations refuse to hire the workers they need and instead make employees work dangerously long hours. Workers often put in 12-hour days, wait on their train “in limbo” for up to six more hours until a replacement crew arrives and then must return to work 10 hours later. Workers who maintain railroad signals can be forced to work 20 hours in a 24-hour period.

Better training is essential. Today, new rail employees commonly receive shortened, one-size-fits-all training. More than five years after 9-11, workers still have not been given comprehensive training — other than a poorly produced 20 minute video — to know what constitutes a security risk, how to respond when they see suspicious activity or what to do if an attack occurs.

Employees routinely face intimidation and harassment when they report accidents, injuries and potential safety and security problems. Strong whistleblower protections must be added to the law to ensure workers never have to choose between job security and the security of the rail transportation system.

There is too much nonsignaled track or “dark territory” throughout our rail system, despite the fact that signal systems are affordable, simple technologies that save lives. An accident in Graniteville, S.C., in 2005 offers sad evidence. Had technology been installed, it would have alerted the crew that the track was not properly aligned. Signal systems that alert crews to incorrect positioning of track can cost as little as $20,000.

Congress must hold rail corporations accountable by increasing fines exponentially, making it more costly for them to violate safety rules. The average fine assessed to railroads for safety violations or “defects” is $39, according to the Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Safety.

Last, safety inspections currently cover only 0.2 percent of railroad operations, and the Federal Railroad Administration often doesn’t follow up to make sure identified problems get corrected.

Our rail system is being pushed beyond capacity as the volume of hazardous materials increases. The railroads are the only ones who will argue that updated safety legislation isn’t worth the time and energy. We believe public safety and the safety of rail workers are worth the investment. It’s time for Congress to act.