Railroad safety in desperate need of reform

Transportation labor testifies at congressional hearing

CONGRESS MUST OVERCOME the railroad industry’s decade-long campaign to block common sense safety legislation and make clear that profits do not trump safety, the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department (TTD) said at a hearing on Capitol Hill recently. The Boilermakers are one of 32 member unions in the department.

“It is simply disgraceful that over a decade has passed since our nation’s rail safety programs have been reauthorized,” said Edward Wytkind, TTD president. “We have met stiff resistance from railroads and their lobbyists who have spent a decade or more derailing every attempt to reauthorize federal rail safety programs.”

As recently as January 16, a train derailed near Brooks, Ky., with a full-scale evacuation but no serious injuries. But other derailments have not proven so lucky, with deaths in Graniteville, S.C., in 2005; Macdona, Texas, in 2004; and Minot, N.D., in 2002. According to Federal Railroad Administration statistics, there were 1,744 train derailments in 2006, and 20 hazardous material spills (reporting was from January through October 2006).

“Railroad workers want more training,” Wytkind said. “They want whistleblower protections so they can identify security or safety risks without fearing retaliation from their employers. They want to address hours of service rules so an 18-hour workday and dangerous fatigue become less common. In short, workers want more government oversight, because they believe that safety and security aren’t negotiable.”

Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials, Wytkind presented the view and concerns of transportation workers. He said fines for safety infractions are “mere nuisances to multi-billion-dollar railroads.” Fines need to be greatly increased. He pointed out that despite record profits, railroads refuse to hire and adequately train the necessary work force to handle traffic. Five-plus years after 9/11, workers still do not know how to react to potential security threats. In addition, Wytkind addressed issues such as employee harassment for reporting accidents and excessive fatigue from overworking employees (they are sometimes required to work more than 400 hours in a 30-day period).

According to the TTD, the nation’s largest railroads reported 2006 net incomes of $1.89 billion for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., $1.61 billion for Union Pacific, $1.5 billion for Norfolk Southern Corp., and $1.31 billion for CSX Corp.

“The railroad industry is making money hand over fist,” Wytkind said. “It's time for them to do their part to protect their workers and the American public.”

“In short, workers want more government oversight, because they believe that safety and security aren’t negotiable.”