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Vol. 79/No. 5      February 16, 2015

(Books of the Month column)
1978 disasters show danger from
rail bosses’ drive for profit

Below is an excerpt from American Railroads, The Case for Nationalization , one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for February. It tells the story of how U.S. railroads, operated to boost the profits of their owners, endanger the safety of workers and surrounding communities alike. It recounts the struggles by rail workers against the continuing offensive by the bosses to cut crew size, intensify the hours and pace of work, and allow tracks and equipment to deteriorate. Copyright © 1980 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

In Waverly, Tennessee, on February 24, 1978, a tank car filled with liquefied propane exploded in a 500-foot ball of flame. Sixteen persons were killed and forty-five injured — the worst accident in railroad history attributable to the carrying of hazardous cargo.

Two days later, in Youngstown, Florida, a train derailment ruptured a tank car filled with chlorine gas. Eight people were killed and 114 injured.

Only a month earlier, in Pensacola, Florida, a derailment caused the release of deadly anhydrous ammonia gas, killing two people and injuring forty-six.

These three disasters propelled into national publicity — at least momentarily — the growing dangers surrounding the rail shipment of hazardous cargo.

This issue underlines the deteriorating and unsafe conditions of the railroads. It is an issue that draws public attention to the dangerous conditions facing railroad workers. And it is an issue of vital importance to the millions of people who live near railroad tracks.

Track-caused accidents have sharply increased in recent years. According to the Federal Railroad Administration there were 4,260 track-caused accidents in 1976 compared to 1,428 in 1966.

In 1976, 500 of the derailments involved shipments of hazardous substances. On top of this, the railroads carry most radioactive waste. About 90 percent of spent nuclear fuel is shipped by train. All high-level waste from nuclear weapons production is shipped by rail. And for “security” reasons the railroads themselves are often not told when government shipments contain nuclear waste.

The three rail disasters in early 1978 forced various Washington agencies connected with the railroads to come up with explanations.

On March 15 the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) issued a report tending to blame the railroad companies. It noted that there were adequate safety laws on the books. They just weren’t being followed. “It sometimes costs the railroads less to pay a penalty when a violation has been detected or risk having to pay a penalty, than to stop service,” the OTA held.

An extensive hearing was held before the National Transportation Safety Board, April 4-6, 1978. Seldom has the buck been passed more times in three days — even in Washington.

Richard Little, vice-president of the Union Pacific, declared — presumably with a straight face: “There does not appear to be any significant relationship between the financial expenditures on maintenance level of railroad track and the number of really serious derailments, including those involving hazardous materials.”

Like many executives before him, Little blamed the workers: “The best way to prevent hazardous material incidents is to adequately train railroad employees,” he said.

But the main argument of the railroad is that they don’t actually own the tank cars. “The Union Pacific owns only a very small number of its own cars,” Little stated.

This brought to the stand Jack Kruizenga, president of the Union Tank Car Company of Chicago. Kruizenga came under particular fire because the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) had passed laws in 1969 ordering safety improvements on tank cars carrying hazardous materials.

These tank cars were supposed to be retrofitted with safer couplers and with head shields to protect the tanks from flying parts of the couplers should these be shattered in a derailment. The FRA had given the companies until 1982 to retrofit the cars. As of the April 1978 hearing, a decade after the law was passed, 25 out of the 23,000 jumbo tank cars that were supposed to be changed actually had the safety improvements. …

Union representatives, for the most part, echoed the complaints of the government agencies: there is not enough inspection.

“Every year [our organization] pleads, begs in an effort to have an adequate number of inspectors hired by FRA,” said one union official.

These union officials do not appear to recognize the irony of their position. The hearing at which they were pleading is precisely the kind of cover the capitalist government needs for its refusal to interfere with the profits-before-safety ways of the railroad companies.

Over the past century there has been voluminous material printed by the United States government exposing the profit-gouging policies of the railroads. What there haven’t been are any moves by the government against the profit interests of the railroads….

One rail union official who testified raised a question that is worth further consideration. Ed McCullough, vice-president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, was explaining how the railroad companies ignore safety norms for locomotives.

He pointed out that there is nothing an engineer can do even when so important an instrument as the speedometer isn’t working. There are speed limits depending on the condition of the track and the sharpness of the curves. Following these is obviously a crucial safety question.

But “we operate strictly on the carriers’ operating rules,” said McCullough. “Engineers can be fired on the spot for not taking out locomotives which they believe to be defective.”…

Working people throughout the country would support the rail workers if the unions got out the facts. Who is going to oppose the right of an engineer not to take out a defective locomotive? Workers everywhere face the same kind of speedup drive and unsafe working conditions.
Related articles:
Nat’l oil workers strike fights for job safety
Walkout at 9 refineries largest since 1980
On the Picket Line
Ukraine coal miners protest gov’t attacks as war in east takes toll
Workers fight frame-up for Lac-Mégantic rail disaster
Membership drop poses need to rebuild unions

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