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Vol. 80/No. 39      October 17, 2016

(feature article)

NJ train crash shows need for bigger crews, workers control

The New Jersey Transit train crash in its Hoboken station Sept. 29 that killed one person and injured more than 100 was not the first sign of serious problems at the railroad. There have been 160 NJ Transit “accidents” since 2011.

The capitalist news media has printed reams of speculation to direct blame toward train engineer Thomas Gallagher. Was the train going faster than the 10 mph speed limit in the terminal? Did the engineer have a health problem? A blood test rapidly confirmed that Gallagher was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Some papers publicized unsubstantiated claims that the passenger train was traveling at 30 mph. But the train was equipped with a cab signal that automatically applies the emergency brakes if it exceeds 19 mph in the terminal. Gallagher has told investigators that the last thing he remembers before the crash is entering the terminal at 10 mph.

“New Jersey Transit bosses’ disregard of elementary safety — from running trains with only the engineer in the locomotive cab to refusal to carry out essential maintenance — is responsible for a disaster that was waiting to happen,” Jacob Perasso, Socialist Workers Party candidate for U.S. Senate in New York, wrote in an Oct. 4 letter of solidarity to Gallagher’s union, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. Perasso is a freight rail conductor and member of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers union. While there have been reports of the deteriorating condition of New Jersey Transit trains and rail infrastructure — even one of the “black box” event recorders recovered was broken — there has been almost no discussion on crew size or union control of safety. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash.

Decades ago, it was standard to have a helper in the locomotive or control cab alongside the engineer on both passenger and freight trains. But in the drive for profits at private railroads and to “cut costs” at government-owned ones, bosses have pushed back the unions and slashed crew sizes.

“The facts show disasters like the one in Hoboken are preventable, along with thousands of other on-the-job deaths that take place in industries across the country,” Perasso wrote. “Increasing the crew size and having an assistant engineer or conductor ride at the controls with the engineer would add greatly to the safety of train crews and passengers.”

All the main public transport systems in the New York area have deteriorating infrastructure. Bloomberg News reported Jan. 6 that New Jersey Transit trains are breaking down more frequently due to lack of maintenance. According to the New Jersey Star Ledger, Gov. Chris Christie has put 222 transit projects on hold — including track rehabilitation, bridge and tunnel repair, improved signals and rail car overhaul — to narrow the state’s budget deficit.

The Federal Railroad Administration conducted a safety audit of NJ Transit earlier this year after an “uptick” in incidents, finding dozens of violations, reported the Wall Street Journal. NJ Transit — the third busiest commuter line in the country — paid $70,000 in fines for safety violations in 2015.

Instead of a larger crew, which would cut into the profits, the bosses’ Association of American Railroads says installing a system known as positive train control, which would automatically slow down trains that go over speed restrictions, is safety enough.

However, they delay putting the government-mandated PTC on their tracks, saying it’s too expensive. The government has granted an extension on installing PTC, now requiring completion by the end of 2018.

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen are backing a proposed minimum crew law. In the July issue of their newspaper, the union explains that while PTC provides an “additional level of safety,” the new technology makes safety worse if it is used to cut crew sizes.

“We must fight for workers control over conditions on the jobs,” Perasso wrote. “We are the ones who can enforce safety for ourselves, our passengers and those who live along the tracks we run on.”

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On the Picket Line
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