The Militant(logo) 
    Vol.60/No.9           March 4, 1996 
String Of Fatal Accidents Shows Disregard Of Rail Barons For Workers' Lives, Safety  

WASHINGTON, D.C. - "MARC Train Was Traveling Too Fast," read the headline of the Washington Post. "Train wreck probe focuses on MARC engineer," echoed the Washington Times. These headlines and other media coverage indicate the direction of an investigation by National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) authorities into a deadly collision of two passenger trains here February 16.

In less than 48 hours NTSB member John Goglia concluded, "Clearly the focus is moving toward the operator [engineer] and the signal." Though the tracks had not been cleared of all the wreckage Goglia said there was no evidence of defects in the tracks or the braking system on the commuter train.

Over the past decade U.S. railroads have recorded substantial increases in productivity and profits resulting from "cost cutting" measures. These include reduction in crew sizes, a longer workweek for train crews, and centralization of dispatching for the control of train movement. Little attention is being given to the effects of these measures on rail safety.

Eleven people were killed and 26 others hospitalized when the commuter train, operated by Maryland Commuter Rail (MARC), on its way to Washington's Union station collided just north of city limits with a departing Amtrak train headed for Chicago. All of the fatalities were on the four-car commuter train. Among them were the engineer, two crew members, and eight passengers - all young workers on a weekend leave from a federal Job Corps program.

The collision occurred on tracks owned and operated by CSX Transportation railroad. CSX also provides the crews to operate the commuter trains. A CSX spokesperson identified crew members killed as engineer Richard Orr, 43; and conductors James Major and James Quillen, 48 and 53 years old respectively. They had an average of 25 years service on the railroad.

At the time of the collision the commuter train was being pushed by its locomotive from the rear. A cab section with controls in a passenger car at the opposite end allows the engineer to operate the train from that end, with the passengar car as the front of the train. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and other railroad unions have long opposed this procedure because it places passengers at the point of impact in a collision and provides no protection for the engineer.

On impact, the two 130-ton engines of the Amtrak train ripped open the 60-ton lead passenger car of the commuter train. All the fatalities were on that front passengar car. Maryland Transit administrator John Agro Jr. defended the push-pull procedure as "standard operating practice in the railroad industry." He said that pushing on the inbound trip avoids the problem of diesel noise and exhaust at the entrance to Union station and; that turning the train after each trip or placing an engine on each end would be too costly.

Rail barons reject safety devices
Rail companies have also resisted recommendations for reinforced fuel tanks and engine designs that would protect fuel tanks from rupture during a collision or derailment. In this case the mangled passenger car ripped open the fuel tanks on the Amtrak leading engine, spilling diesel fuel into the passenger car.

The fuel ignited into a fireball trapping many of the victims inside. Eight of the 11 people who died were killed by fire, not the crash itself. Investigators have also said that escape routes were poorly marked and that many of the windows failed to open, blocking the escape of those trapped in the burning cars. Many of the bodies were so charred they could only be identified through dental records and DNA tests.

The second engine on the Amtrak train was equipped with crash resistant fuel tanks. No explanation has been given as to why the older engine without crash resistant tanks was placed in the lead of the train.

For years the movement of trains was controlled by dispatchers who supervised a few operators, each responsible for a limited amount of track known as blocks. That system was dismantled in a drive to cut the workforce. Most railroads now rely on a centralized remote dispatching system. In this case the signals and switches were controlled by the CSX dispatching center in Jacksonville, Florida, where each dispatcher is responsible for 300 to 400 miles of track.

Company had removed signal
The collision occurred as the Amtrak train was attempting to cross over and reenter another track - it had earlier crossed onto the track the MARC train was on in order to bypass a freight train in its path. The commuter train had made a station stop about three miles away. On approach to the station it should have received a yellow signal, called an approach signal, indicating to the engineer to slow to 30 miles per hour. That should have been followed two miles later by a stop signal so that the Amtrak train could complete its movement through the crossover.

NTSB investigators say they recovered the event recorders from the commuter train, which is supposed to record the locomotive's speed and other operations. Investigators claim it shows the train's speed at 63 mph just after leaving the station.

Just before the crash the device recorded an emergency application of the train's braking system slowing its speed to 40 mph at impact. Goglia told CNN news that he did not suspect a defect in the signal even though it had not yet been tested.

Goglia speculated that the engineer became distracted during the station stop, forgot about the approach signal, and departed the station as if the track ahead was clear. He conceded, however, that under the CSX signal system the approach signal may not have been displayed until after the commuter train had passed that location.

In an "overhaul" of its signal system CSX removed a signal that would have been located after the commuter train left the station. Had it still been in place it would have reminded the engineer he was nearing a stop signal. So far CSX has declined to answer why the signal was removed.

Railroad companies have also resisted installing what is known as the Cab Signal Automatic Train Control System (CSS). Under this system a device in the engine receives and replicates the signal displayed along the tracks. This enables the crew to know what signal indication they are currently running on, even if they inadvertently missed seeing the previous signal. Each signal requires the train to operate at a designated speed. If the train continues to exceed that speed within a set limit of time the train brakes are automatically initiated bringing it to a stop.

In this case the CSS system might have helped to save 11 lives.

Sam Manuel is a conductor for Conrail in Washington, D.C., and a member of United Transportation Union Local 454.

California: train derails, explodes

LOS ANGELES - On February 1, a Burlington Northern-Santa Fe (BNSF) freight train carrying hazardous chemicals crashed on the Cajon Pass, near San Bernardino, killing two workers and injuring the engineer. It was one of the worst train accidents to date in the southern California region.

The crash occurred after the brakes malfunctioned and the train began accelerating down the curving mountain pass. The brakeman and conductor jumped off just before the train hurtled off the tracks at more than 50 miles per hour.

Forty-five of the 49 cars derailed, as well as the four locomotives. Some of the cars contained hazardous materials, such as butyl acrylite and denatured alcohol, used to make paint and adhesives. On impact, the cars exploded into flames and started a fire that lasted for days.

Nearby Interstate 15 was closed for 30 hours due to the smoke and noxious fumes, and several hundred residents in the surrounding area had to be evacuated. The wreckage left chemicals seeping into the ground, potentially contaminating the area's water supply.

This is at least the fourth serious crash on the Cajon Pass in six years. A total of six people have been killed and over 30 injured in these wrecks.

Preliminary reports on the disaster showed that the emergency brakes worked on only the first 10 out of 49 cars. After a 1994 crash on the same pass, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) determined that if the train had a working two-way end-of-train device (ETD), the crash could have been prevented. This system allows the crew to make an emergency brake application from the rear of the train.

Two-way brake system `inoperable'
The two-way devices were conceived as a substitute for the cabooses that used to be at the rear of all freight trains, where a crew member could apply the emergency brakes. They were eliminated by the railroad companies in the mid-1980s as the bosses slashed crews. Although two-way ETDs were installed in many trains following the 1994 wreck, many of them did not work. The train that crashed February 1 had the device, but according to a U.S. Department of Transportation report issued February 6, "such braking systems were not operable."

The FRA issued an emergency order February 6 requiring all railroads using the Cajon Pass to equip trains with a means to apply the brakes from the rear of the train.

Instead of covering the precise reasons for this crash and others, the big-business media have focused on an FBI investigation of possible sabotage. The February 11 Los Angeles Times said the FBI is checking into "a signal set improperly" and implied the crew members are at fault for the crash because "no one pushed the button at the back of the train that activated the [two-way ETD] system before the train started down the hill."

These comments fly in the face of the facts. According to reports in the San Bernardino County Sun, the crew members tested the brake system three times before starting down the hill.

Discussion has been raging among unionists in the BNSF yards in Los Angeles about this wreck. "Just to save money, they eliminated three crew members and risked the safety of workers and the general public," said one worker. "But their profits increased!"

"It could have been any one of us," another noted.

Since two-way ETD equipment has not proven reliable, workers are pointing to the need for reinstating cabooses and crew members on the rear of the trains. One BNSF employee said, "They were running trains down this hill for 50 years without wrecks like these. They used to have cabooses!"

Craig Honts and Barry Fatland contributed to this article. Kanpton, Honts, and Fatland are members of the UTU and work for the BNSF in Los Angeles.

Minnesota: train plows into rail yard

ST. PAUL, Minnesota - A railroad worker's worst nightmare turned into reality here moments before midnight February 14. A Burlington Northern-Santa Fe (BNSF) freight train lost its air brakes, and hurtled off the main line at nearly 50 miles an hour into the Canadian Pacific-Soo Line switching yard.

The 89-car train derailed, smashed into idling engines and unattached railcars, demolished part of the yard office, and sent nine workers to the hospital.

The sight and sound of engines, gondolas, grain hoppers, and boxcars popping off tracks into and onto each other - while crushing the wooden yard office like a matchbox - drove one thought through a stunned Dave Hatch, 50 yards away in an engine. "All I could think was `how many are dead?' " the soft- spoken senior switchman said.

That no one was killed, worker after worker said, was "beyond belief."

Spokesmen for the BNSF rushed to claim that the accident was a result of "sabotage," an allegation that stamped the initial sensational media coverage here.

Agents for the FBI combed the crash site, and interrogated BNSF carmen, as the railroad announced a $10,000 reward for anyone providing information leading to a conviction of those responsible for the wreck.

But, as one railroad unionist suggested, echoing the sentiments of many coworkers, "that just gets the BN out of any liability [for the accident]."

Less than 48 hours later, Pat Cariseo, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board stated that the collision "was an accident."

Many workers, however, believe the wreck was an accident waiting to happen. "We struck for 47 days [in 1994] because we know the railroad's not safe," said veteran CP-Soo switchman Jeff Grab. "But the politicians didn't listen."

As a result of the ensuing concessions contract, Soo Line crews, like those of other freight carriers, were slashed to a conductor only, along with an engineer. The brakeman's classification was virtually abolished as part of the profit- driven assault by the rail barons on railroad labor and union rights.

"You cut the crew, you take away all the knowledge transferred from one generation to another," Grab said, "and you take away one set of eyes to watch with."

This cutback did away with the caboose from which brakemen or conductors could watch the train, and, if it lost braking power from the engine, put it into emergency and bring it to a halt.

Instead, freight trains are equipped with telemetry devices that monitor air brake pressure. Special telemetry devices that serve as two-way braking systems can be activated by the engineer for emergency stops. The BNSF train, which became a runaway when it lost braking power, was cabooseless, and its telemetry device, like those on many trains, was not "armed" with a two-way braking system.

The NTSB has recommended that all major railroads install this equipment by March 31 of this year, a suggestion rejected by BNSF chief executive officer R.D. Krebs as "not practical."

`BN is the culprit'
Kate Button, a BNSF conductor was in a safety class with 30 co-workers the day after the crash. "The wreck was what everybody talked about," she said. "And everybody said, `If there was a manned caboose or an armed telemetry device,' this never would have happened."

"The BN offers a reward," Button said, "but it's the real culprit."

The BNSF train roared onto CP-Soo track because a main line switch for another train was left open. The BNSF dispatcher was unable to reline the automatic switch back to keep the out- of-control train on the main line. And many railroad workers here are looking for answers as to why the switch could not be manually overridden.

Even though there were only precious minutes to warn the CP- Soo workers on duty about the runaway, many railroaders had no idea it was heading for them. Dave Hatch said he "never heard a word" on his radio.

And Gary LaValley, an experienced engineer, who was sitting in his engine "at ground zero" heard "nothing" on his radio. Seconds before his engine was hit full force by the runaway, a co-worker shouted to LaValley, "There's a runaway in the yard!"

"I had five seconds to get below the window when I saw that light barreling down on me," LaValley said.

Though shaken by the disaster, uninjured switchmen, engineers, carmen, yard clerks, and others ran towards the wreckage, despite the very real possibility of explosions from leaking fuel which could have been ignited by fallen transformers. They searched for and pulled dazed coworkers from the debris, and rallied the spirits of workers pinned under cars until rescue workers arrived.

`We've been expecting something'
"A lot of us have been expecting something," longtime CP-Soo switchman Dave Heath noted, referring to a dangerous routine of gas and propane cars being automatically "humped," or rolled into various tracks, at excessive speeds. "That's what I thought this was. There's something still to come."

It did, just 24 hours after the wreck. Another BNSF train derailed, 200 miles northwest of Minneapolis outside Audobon, Minnesota, sending 14 of 59 Seattle-bound cars onto the ground. Fifteen of a shipment of one hundred 55-gallon drums of fuel additive ruptured in the accident, just beyond downtown power lines near the edge of the tracks, thus averting a major disaster. No one was injured this time.

Jon Hillson was a switchman on the BN in 1992-93, and on the CP-Soo Line in 1993-95.

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