Blood on the Tracks

The City of New Orleans by Steve Goodman is a loving tribute to an era gone-by. Steve mourned what he perceived to be ”the disappearing railroad blues.” He takes a nostalgic look back at an America that looks better through the sepia tones of memory than it actually was. Steve Goodman was unquestionably a great song writer, but for all that, he was a lousy economist. America’s railroads are anything but disappearing. Rather than a relic from another time, they are at the forefront of American capital’s plan for the 21st century. If you don’t live along the major corridors of rail traffic, it is easy to miss this vital aspect of the US economy.

For people that live in, or near, one of the cities that stretch from Boston to Washington, when they think about railroads at all, they generally think first about Amtrak. Everyone who uses Amtrak has a horror story to tell. Even the premium Acela train is seen as not measuring up to the trains of Europe or China. The primary reason high speed passenger trains aren’t a priority in the US is simple: freight traffic makes too damn much money. Wherever in the world there are fast and efficient passenger trains, freight traffic is secondary, or non existent. There was a time in the United States when freight traffic was shunted to the side to make room for passenger trains. To the major railroads that was a waste of time and money.

If high speed passenger service were to be successful two essential things would be needed: 1. Government subsidies (or better yet total nationalization) and 2. A huge upgrade in infrastructure. File the first requirement under the category of “come the revolution,” and the second under unlikely. The infrastructure is just fine for what the major carriers want to accomplish. They do not want, or need tracks, or roadbeds, that can safely move 15,000 tons of freight at 100 miles per hour, sixty MPH will do nicely, thank you. Building and maintaining the right-of-way is an expensive and labor intensive proposition. Even with cost-cutting machinery it is viewed by railroads as something to be kept to a minimum.

In the decade before the crash of 2008 railroad freight traffic exploded. From 1996 to 2006 railroad and truck traffic both grew, but railroad traffic grew faster. Using the metric of ton miles, the industry’s standard measurement, that decade saw rail traffic grow 25.1% and truck traffic grow 21.8%. This boom is still being fueled by the growth of “unit trains.” Unit trains, as opposed to manifest trains, are a one trick pony. For example a train consisting solely of crude oil, or grain or coal are of unit trains. Such trains go from point A to point B with no stops in between. No setting out a cut of cars in Podunk, Iowa or picking up cars of lumber in Rochester, Minnesota. Much of America has become not only flyover country, but also roll-by country as well. This contrasts with the once more common manifest train. Such trains required switching at various points along the route. This change brought with it the loss of thousands of switching jobs, those jobs did indeed go the way of Steve Goodman’s disappearing railroad.

After years of consolidation American railroad evolved into five large carriers. With the aid of this monopoly the railroads were on track for bigger and bigger payoffs. My old boss, the Union Pacific has over 32,000 miles of tracks resulting from mergers and takeovers. In the second quarter of 2014 the Union Pacific saw its profits jump 17%.  This in the midst of an economy that is, at best, sputtering along.

No unit train has been more important in reviving the fortunes of America’s railroads than double stack container trains. The humble container is as central to globalization as is the internet. Containers stack like bricks. Containers make a seamless transition from ship to train to truck.  A ship docks in Long Beach, cranes move the containers directly onto double stack rail cars and two hundred containers are on there way to Chicago. No muss. No fuss. No longshoremen. These trains are the king of the road as far as the five major railroads are concerned.  They are as time-sensitive as any passenger train, and huge money makers to boot.

Warren Buffett has a nose for money and a nose for exploitation. In 2009 Berkshire Hathaway forked over a cool $26 billion to buy the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. You can be sure that sentimentality had nothing to do with this move. During the same period. while the amount of ton-miles rose, the size of the crews that move the tons across those miles has steadily declined. Traditionally, road crews consisted of five people: An engineer, a fireman, a conductor, and two helpers, or brakemen. The fireman was the first to go in the early 1960s. The title still exists for apprentice engineers, but the craft itself was a victim of the change from steam to diesel. Next, one of the two helpers was gradually phased out in the 1970s. With the departure of the caboose, and the rear of the train protection that went with it, it wasn’t much longer until the second helper was gone. That is where we stand today: one engineer; one conductor per train.

It seemed at the time that this last reduction to the two person crew would be the end of job cuts. After all, trains were getting longer, the freight was becoming more dangerous and profits were going through the roof. The idea of “engineer only” was unthinkable to any experienced railroader, and anathema to anyone that knows the potential dangers involved. Ask yourself how safe would you feel boarding a 737 with only a pilot in the cockpit? Ask the people Lac Magnetic how having only an engineer in the cab of the locomotive worked out for them. For forty-seven of the town’s citizens it is too late to ask. The train involved in this disaster was the “engineer only” nightmare advocated by the BNSF. At the end of his run the engineer got off the engine and performed what is normally conductor’s work. With no one to help, and with no one to discuss the safest course of action, he tied on seven handbrakes on the seventy-two car train. Often the rule book calls for “sufficient hand brakes,” a weasel formulation that places the onus squarely on the crew.

Due to faulty equipment repairs, the seven handbrakes were not sufficient. The train’s air brakes failed as a result of a fire, and the cars ran full speed into Lac Magnetic, demolishing a large section of the town and killing forty-seven people. Almost before the smoke cleared the engineer became the villain. What followed was yet another classic replay of the Mai Lai syndrome. The Mai Lai syndrome is when blame is passed down the chain of command, and doesn’t stop until it reaches the lowest possible level.  The last link in the chain was the engineer, who now faces forty-seven counts of criminal neglect and life in prison. Meanwhile management and government walk away with a stern warning. Wendy Taros, of the Canadian Transportation Safety Board delivered what amounts to a tsk, tsk: “Who then was in a position to check on this company, to make sure safety standards were being met? Who was the guardian of Public Safety?” Note the absence of the word “greed” in her questions.

Life for railroad operating personnel is controlled by the extra-board. Here is one relic of the 19th century that the carriers are happy to keep. The extra-board consists of being on call 24 hours, 365 days a year. Ten hours off and get ready. You get the call. You’re out the door. Usually with two hours to get to your assignment. Baby up all night? Too bad. Construction down the block? Too bad. Car alarm went off after two hours of sleep? Too bad. Day after day, month after month you are a prisoner of the telephone. After awhile you find yourself in a perpetual state of half-asleep and half-awake.

Now climb aboard four huge engines with enough horse poser to move  a mile long train, a train often with enough hazardous materials to wipe out a mid-size town. Be prepared to be alone in the cab of the engine for the next ten to twelve hours. You’re given a stack of track bulletins, each one with specific, complicated instructions. Each one of these bulletins can be a question of life and death. In the course of your run you are constantly interacting with dispatchers, train masters, yard masters, track foremen, control operators, other trains and emergency personnel. Many of these radio conversations require exact wording, and a long ritualized formula: “Engineer on UP7215 East calling foreman Brown in charge of track bulletin 624 issued on September 24, between mile post 281.6 to mile post  285.7, over.” And so one back and forth the exchanges go over and over, with every word repeated exactly.  No one to help interpret the sometimes ambiguous instructions; add to this a bad radio and a hard to understand track foreman and you get the picture. All this is done at sixty miles an hour, while monitoring speed, air pressure, track conditions, amperage and signals. In short a prescription for catastrophe.

Knowing all this the union negotiators of the engineers and the brakemen wanted to sign a sweetheart deal with the BNSF allowing the travesty of a one person crew in the next contract. More concerned with which craft would get the remaining position than the safety and well being of their membership, much less  the general public, these union misleaders were ready to go along to get along. But the membership had other ideas, and they had the final say. (I am proud to say I was part of a movement in the early 1970s that fought and won the right to vote on contracts by the membership in the United Transportation Union). The rank and file defied the union leadership and voted down the engineer only proposal. They said no to the BNSF. No to Berkshire Hathaway. And no to the union bureaucrats. I have never been prouder of my brothers and sisters.

Guy Miller worked thirty-eight years on first the Chicago Northwestern, and later the Union Pacific as a trainman. He is a retired member of Local 577 of  the United Transportation Union and lives in Chicago. He can be reached at: