A Train Bound for Tragedy

Kari Lydersen

The July 6 accident in Lac-Mégantic was the deadliest rail disaster in Canada in the last hundred years.

On July 6, a derailed oil train crashed into the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic, killing 47 people. The tragedy highlighted a distressing practice in the freight train industry: Namely, that thanks to technological developments over the last few decades, a single engineer might now be expected to operate a 100-car train. Because of the lack of oversight, say many railroad workers, that lone man’s mistake could end in disaster.

The Canada accident really put the spotlight on what can happen if you have one person responsible for such a big piece of machinery,” says J.P. Wright, a locomotive engineer with CSX Transportation in Kentucky and organizer with Railroad Workers United, a national group of progressive labor activists including members from different rail unions, in an interview with In These Times.

RWU, along with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), has highlighted the Montreal disaster as an example of potential tragedies workers think will increase if the industry continues its push for one-man trains. 

However, Ed Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railways, the company running the Quebec train, tells In These Times that one-man crews had nothing to do with the July accident. He argues that the derailment, which occurred when the train’s sole operator left it parked unmanned to spend the night at an inn, could have happened with a two-man crew as well.

This was a situation where the hand brakes were not properly applied. An employee failed in his duties there. It could be an employee of a two-man crew just as well as an employee of a one-man crew,” Burkhardt says.

But rail workers say that inevitable human errors or unforeseeable accidents will become more frequent and more deadly with only one person running a train.

You need checks and balances in the system — you have so many things going on, all that weight behind you — at crossings you’re supposed to look behind you, make sure there’s nothing dragging on the ground and causing sparks,” says Lonnie Swigert, 35, who has worked at Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway (W&LE) in Ohio for eight years and is the chairman of trainmen for BLET Local 292. People have heart attacks, strokes, people get tired. I don’t have this problem, but for some people listening to that engine hum will put you to sleep.”

Swigert tells In These Times that people should be especially concerned about W&LE running one-man trains, since the railroad is in the heart of hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as fracking) country. This means that its trains haul massive amounts of natural gas extracted from the Marcellus and Utica Shale.

Almost every train you have now is just loaded full of natural gas,” Swigert says, which could be absolutely” deadly in an accident.

At W&LE, BLET and the company are deadlocked about one-man trains in contract negotiations that started in January 2012. The Ohio local, which includes about 100 engineers and conductors, went on strike for roughly 12 hours in September after — the union charged — the company ran two stone trains,” each operated by a sole non-union managerial employee. A federal judge ordered the strike ended, an expected move given federal labor laws specific to the railroad industry.

W&LE has been pushing for one-man crews for more than a decade, resulting in a previous contract impasse that the union claims left workers without a raise for eight years until a 2008 contract was finally ratified.

We’re willing to negotiate anything but one-man crews; they won’t negotiate anything without one-man crews,” Swigert says. The company did not return a call for comment.

Despite individual resistance, Wright fears that overall, unions have been allowing contract language to seep into the contracts that would enable the one-person trains, while the railroad companies have been implementing technology without the unions at the bargaining table. 

The unions are thinking contract to contract and fighting each other for the jobs, while the railroads have been planning years ahead,” he says.

After the Quebec disaster, the Canadian government mandated that one-man trains cannot carry hazardous materials. In the United States, the Federal Railroad Administration asked the MMA railroad to stop using one-man trains after the accident, but it was not a binding mandate. MMA’s business plummeted after the accident, however, and the company is now in bankruptcy proceedings. According to Burkhardt, the bankruptcy process means that for the time being, is not running one-man trains in the United States, apparently by the request of MMA’s Chapter 11 trustee Robert J. Keach. And in Canada, Burkhardt says that labor agreements mean it cannot run one-man trains while there are protected union members on furlough — so it cannot run one-man trains at all unless business picks up and union members are back at work. 

For his part, Burkhardt tells In These Times that one-man operation is a job issue, not a safety issue, though [the unions] are trying to make it a safety issue.” In fact, he thinks one-man trains are safer than trains run by two workers.

There’s less people who could potentially get injured” with a single operator, he says. Say you run into a gasoline truck at a crossing, if there are two on board there would be two deaths, if there’s one there would be one death. The second factor is with two people they tend to distract each other — talking, each is relying on the other for certain functions. If one man is there by himself he’s very intent on the job.”

Both W&LE and MMA are Class II railroads, smaller than well-known Class I railroad companies like BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad, which haul freight cross-country. Wright and Swigert think Class II railroads have been bolder in pushing for one-man operations than the larger companies.

I feel like this is a gateway,” says Swigert. I’m sure Class Is are in support of [one-man trains], but they don’t want to be the first ones to do it. I do see this being a bigger issue than just us. It’s about greed and putting profits over personal and public safety.”

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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