The boom in oil fracking and tar sands has lured the great and small to the rails in search of profits and jobs.
The great include Bill Gates, who took time from the virtual world of software to acquire controlling interest in the Canadian National railroad(CN), part of the real world of steel rails, mile long trains and the rumble of linked diesel locomotives pulling tar sands oil out of Alberta.
The not so great, like Edmund Burkhardt, CEO of Rail World, which controls the short line “Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway” saw the boom in rail transported petroleum as a way to make his mini-empire of short lines profitable.
And of course the “small people”, railroad employees of the “Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway” like Tom Harding, the engineer of the train that blew up, found steady workrunning the endless strings of crude oil tankers across Canada and the US to refineries. Harding, by the way, is now being blamed by CEO Burkhard for the disaster.
Railroad industry watchers have predicted even more exponential growth for the “pipeline on rails” booming on in the shadow of the stalled Keystone pipeline plans still awaiting Obama’s signature.
Now all these plans are up in the air, after the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train’s engine caught fire, was shut down, which might then have been the cause for the brakes to leak off, sending fully loaded oil tank cars careening down the grade into Lac Megantic, Quebec where they exploded, incinerating dozens of people.
A veteran carman (someone who hooks up the railroad cars to a locomotive) Phil Amadon emailed me his thoughts about the incident.
“First, even if the locomotives are shut down the train should have held with proper procedures and maintenance. If the cars and locomotives have proper brake shoes and piston travel and brake lever angularity (all part of standard maintenance) and the hand brakes are tightly tied on the locomotives and the first five cars and two out every ten cars on the grade including the last two. Also with standard periodic maintenance the piston should hold if the brakes are dumped into emergency (zero leakage at the piston is part of the proper shop single car test) WITH PROPER PROCEDURES AND MAINTENANCE THEY SHOULD HAVE HELD. In fact I have bled off properly maintained cars where the cars have maintained set for WEEKS. I suspect that these cars may have been part of a unit train rotation that gives the rail industry loopholes to escape standard maintenance”
According to engineer Ron Kaminkow, General Secretary of Railroad Workers United, the general procedure for leaving trains unattended on the mainline includes: “Setting the automatic brake full service; setting the independent to fully applied; setting a handbrake on each locomotive; and setting handbrakes on enough cars to hold the train. Then testing that the handbrakes by releasing both the automatic and independent brakes to see if the equipment rolls. If the train does not move, it is now considered secure. If it were to roll, then the worker(s) would once again apply the air brakes, apply more handbrakes and repeat this test. Once the train is deemed secure, the automatic and independent brakes are once again fully applied and the train left standing. A time-consuming job which is more effectively and far more safely performed by a two employee crew.” As noted earlier, engineer Harding is being blamed for not setting enough brakes by his boss, Burkhardt, who said in the face of an angry crowd in Lac Megantic“ “It is very questionable whether the hand brakes were properly applied. In fact I’ll say they weren’t”.As the saying goes “s**t goes downhill.” Every railroader should take note.
“It will make another trip”, as is the policy with unit trains. I heard that phrase during my railroad career after pointing out a problem which usually was a worn-out brake shoe, not something not so critical as a fuel leak. Just the same it was always a temptation for a foreman to take a chance that locomotive will make it safely to its next destination. Maintenance supervisors are judged largely on how many “makers” they get out of the shop on their shift. They are under the temptation to take shortcuts that are “officially” frowned upon. The maxim being, “don’t get caught.”
Which brings up the question of proper maintenance for both air and fuel leakage, which we also have to question since the locomotive that was running caught on fire. For diesel fuel to ignite in the engine compartment it would have to spray or drip on the exhaust.. You would think that any sort of check at the last maintenance stop for fuel would have discovered this problem. Everything points to a railroad oriented to the bottom line as policy, full speed ahead.
In the case of Rail World, taking shortcuts is official policy. The CEO is a staunch advocate of single employee crews and remote control. The train that exploded in Québec had only one crew member, the engineer in charge of the whole train, saving the expense of a conductor, a job still the rule on most Class 1 roads. Not that they major railroads aren’t eyeing getting rid of this job. Far from it.
The cross craft caucus of rail workers, Railroad Workers United, has been campaigning against the use of single employee crews since 2009 when conductor Jared Boehlke was killed in the yard where I worked. Jared was a remote control operator working alone attempting a repair. Now these cost cutting plans by the railroad carriers have been exposed by a horrendous disaster to a shocked general public who now see that not only railworkers are at risk from the cost cutting railroads. If the plans of the railroad industry to take advantage of the delay in building the Keystone pipeline now are nixed, the industry has only its own profit driven greed to blame, personified by the CEO of Rail World.
Moving dangerous cargo whether by rail or pipeline can never be perfectly safe. But in a capitalist economy where profits rule and bean counters run corporations like Rail World we can be sure that more accidents like that in Québec will happen. It will take an aroused public, supporting campaigns like the one against single employee crews being waged by Railroad Workers United, to counter the plans of the rail and pipeline profiteers to wring the last dollar out of the North Dakota fracking and the Canadian tar sands. And speaking just for myself, it will take an aroused public to demand that we end our climate destructive addiction to fossil fuels, stop the fracking and leave the tar sands in the forests.
Locomotives, railroaders take note, can run on electricity generated by renewable energy.
Jonathan Flanders spent 25 years as a Railroad Machinist, member and past President of IAM 1145. Steering committee member of Railroad Workers United. Retired. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.