Union questions US railroad safety

Dec. 1, 2005
Security and safety breaches on the nation's railways, including a man who allegedly hijacked a train with a bow and arrow, reinforce the findings of

Security and safety breaches on the nation's railways, including a man who allegedly hijacked a train with a bow and arrow, reinforce the findings of the Teamsters Rail Conference report, High Alert: Workers Warn of Security Gaps on Nation's Railroads. The conclusion: America's rail network is simply not safe.

The report documents a startling lack of safety and security measures in this post-9-11 era. Employees of Union Pacific, CSX, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Norfolk Southern, and others participated in the report, detailing examples of carriers' operational security and safety gaps that put the public at risk. Recent security and safety incidents include:

  • October 25: An Amtrak train from Boston to Washington was delayed for more than two hours as law enforcement investigated a bomb threat.

  • October 20: At a Senate hearing, lawmakers warned freight rail carriers to devise a way to strengthen tanker cars that hold the most dangerous chemicals. In the United States, rail carriers transport about 1.7 million carloads of hazardous materials each year. Tank cars carry about 68% of hazardous materials and nearly all of the most dangerous chemicals.

  • October 15: Seven empty train cars and a tanker containing a flammable gas derailed in a switchyard, exploding in a ball of fire that killed one person. It forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes and left a plume of smoke over the south end of Texarkana AR. At least two homes were destroyed and several vehicles totaled in the area surrounding the accident.

  • October 10: In Montclair CA, police shot and wounded a man who allegedly took over a Union Pacific freight train with a bow and arrow as it was stopped for a signal. The man threatened the engineer and conductor, the only people on board.

High Alert details survey responses from more than 4,000 rail employees nationwide. It reveals inattention to security by the nation's largest rail corporations. Rail employees have little, if any, training on the handling of hazardous materials, such as the propylene gas in the Arkansas accident. The practice of leaving rail engines and other machinery unlocked is common. The report's conclusions are that the nation's rail system is vulnerable to terrorist attack, and the rail corporations have not taken seriously the safety of their employees and the public.

A week after the release of High Alert, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its own report on rail security, prompting Sen Olympia Snowe (R-ME) to declare: “We are in a situation where our individual rail services across the country have no clear understanding of what the best means are of securing their rail systems.”

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) took a small step in the right direction October 19 and issued an emergency order mandating that railroads take specific and immediate steps to fix a growing safety problem with hand-operated track switches in “dark territory,” which has led to an increasing number of train accidents, resulting in nine serious train crashes, 10 fatalities, and injuries to more than 600 people since January 2005. Until the FRA affirmatively addresses the inherent deficiencies of dark territory and non-monitored switches, as well as the issues of crew fatigue, work/rest schedules, manpower shortages, and operating rule deficiencies, the hand-operated track switches problem will not be solved.

The report is available at www.teamster.org/divisions/.