This week marks the one year anniversary of a tragic rail accident – a runaway train carrying 72 cars of crude ran into Lac-Megantic, Quebec killing 47 people and demolishing an entire town. While millions of carloads and containers traverse the country safely each year, too many accidents have occurred lately both in the freight and passenger sector. While the causes of these accidents vary and many investigations are ongoing, what is known is that more must be done to ensure that rail transportation is as safe and secure as possible for employees and the public.
For starters, too many rail workers, especially those responsible for operating trains and maintaining safety-sensitive equipment, are forced to report to work tired and fatigued. TTD has long called for federal rules to be changed to ensure that employees are given proper notice of when they will need to report to work and predictable schedules so that adequate rest can be secured.
Congress must also step in to stop rail companies from only “counting” certain hours that signal employees work as a way to get around federal rules limiting on-duty time. Let’s just say that there are some rail executives using creative calculating when it comes to adding up “covered work.” The problem is that this isn’t a game, and it is jeopardizing safety.
Congress must also adopt a mandated minimum crew size for freight train operations. Last year’s accident in Lac-Megantic, caused by a train that was operated by a single crew member, is a tragic reminder of the dangers posed by risky one-person rail operations. A freight train is massive – up to 19,000 tons and a mile and a half long – that simply should not be operated by one individual, especially given the myriad operating rules and regulations that must be followed. And while two-person crews are the norm on U.S. freight lines, crew size is often an issue determined by collective bargaining rather than federal mandate. Safety should not be bartered at the negotiating table. And by the way, the public agrees with us on this, with a series of polls showing that up to 9 out of 10 Americans believe #2crewtrains should be a national standard.
Fortunately, some lawmakers are taking steps to address rail safety. Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Jim Himes (D-CT), Elizabeth Esty (D-CT) and Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) introduced legislation (H.R. 4576) earlier this year that mandates predictable and defined work and rest schedules and Congressman Michaud (D-ME) introduced a bill (H.R. 3040) requiring a minimum crew size for freight trains. We also applaud the Department of Transportation and its Federal Railroad Administration for moving on a new proposed rule on two-person train crew requirements. Strong federal action is needed because we know from experience that the rail lobby will dismiss and downplay these dangerous operating practices.
In addition, first responders require the necessary tools and training to effectively respond to rail accidents, particularly those involving hazardous materials. Domestic oil production has boomed and the amount of crude oil being shipped by rail has increased 70-fold in the last decade. Despite that fact, many firefighters receive an inadequate level of training that does little more than teach them to call for help in the case of a hazardous materials incident. Congress must direct adequate resources to states and localities for first responder training but also ensure that the level of training is sufficient.
This week’s anniversary of the tragedy in Lac-Megantic is a glaring reminder that it’s not just the workers on these trains that are endangered by unsafe rail industry practices. The neighborhoods and cities through which these trains travel should care just as much. Congress and the Administration must take strong, immediate action to close gaps in rail safety that expose too many to unnecessary risks.